Tasmanian Peter d’Plesse is an educator, adventurer, pilot and now, with his debut novel arriving this April, an author.
Fire Eye, which further expands the swelling ranks of adventure fiction novels from Australian authors, combines elements of d’Plesse’s favourite subjects: the Australian outdoors, aviation and war history.
The female protagonist, Alexander Dulaine hires Jed, an adventurer-cum-private-detective, to help discover the lost resting place of her grandfather’s plane that disappeared during WWII. Dulaine’s interest isn’t purely academic, however. The aircraft is implicated in a Torres Strait legend of a ruby named ‘Fire Eye’.
While we’re reserving our full review of d’Plesse’s debut novel in issue 147 of Wild, we managed to steal some of the author’s time ahead of the release to discover more about his own background, career and interest in the Australian bush.
Peter, your love of adventure, the outdoors and aeronautics combines in this book, which passion came first and how?
My love of adventure was a bit of rebellion against a loving but protective mother who had her fair share of grief with the Gestapo and Nazis in Austria a long time ago. As a child I wanted to join the Sea Scouts. That was seen as too dangerous. I became fascinated by aircraft instead, but kept it to myself. I also kept various childhood adventures to myself, such as a sleepover with a mate. The sleep over was on a beach 80 kilometres from home – a long way on a push bike with no gears!
I finally learned to fly on King Island during my first principalship. There was a private airstrip next to the school residence used by the King Island Aero Club. I grabbed the opportunity and grew wings with the support of experienced pilots.
A lust for adventure comes from my father. Europe in the 1930s and 40s was a cauldron of uncertainty, but he was a survivor. He spoke six languages, survived four wounds, earned medals from three nations and gave his children a new life in Australia for which we are thankful.
Adventure led to the wilderness, which in turn led to aviation. It could have been deep sea sailing or other experiences, but one can’t do everything. All these involve experiencing nature, making judgements and facing the consequences of one’s decisions. Modern life has too many safeguards. These become suffocating and smother personal development. Let a child climb a tree and fall out. Next time they will learn to hold on tighter and climb higher!
As a Tasmanian, you’re surrounded by some of the best wilderness landscapes Australia can offer. Do you often draw inspiration from them?
Yes indeed. Real wilderness has a special flavour that demands independence and acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions. Whether it’s the desert, the jungle, southwest Tasmania or the mountains of New Zealand, wilderness clears the mind of the superficiality of modern life. Make a decision and live with it. If something goes wrong – deal with it. Wilderness provides an opportunity to connect with nature at the most raw level and learn who one really is. The tougher the experience, the more that is learned about the individual.
I do enjoy the red soil country of outback Australia and the lingering presence of Aboriginal cultures. Whether walking the country eyes down, camping by a water course or standing in front of a rock carving going back who knows how long, I am always in awe of their connection with the land. It was not an easy life and should not be idealised, but Aboriginal adaption over eons of massive climate change deserves respect.
What research went into this book? How long did it take to write? Who do you hope to inspire by reading it?
The book represents the climax of decades of experience in the outback and adventures in wild country, supported by a lot of reading and listening. It was written as a challenge over a period of three years.
Writing a novel is a huge task, especially when written from multiple perspectives with an aim to make the action work. Most of the scenes in the book have actually happened in real life. I took aspects of a woman’s story, connected them to other events that happened and tied them together in a web of fiction. Each scene has a story to tell and contributes to the whole. The book will appeal to readers who like action to be realistic and doesn’t rely on a super hero doing impossible things.
Anything to with aircraft, survival and firearms is based on fact and experience. The tricky bits have to do with emotions, relationships and the indigenous aspects of the story, but I have based these on experience and good advice as much as possible. Finding the story about Jimara to illustrate the shades of grey within values such as right and wrong and the resulting culture clash did take a lot of reading, observation and talking to people.
Fire Eye also reflects real life, where matters of life and death can be determined by the most inconsequential actions or events. Deciding to buy a coffee or turning left or right can decide fate.
The book is written as entertainment in the form of ‘the great Australian yarn’. I want the reader to enjoy an adventure story and a journey into outback Australia. For readers who like to dig a bit deeper, there are further themes to explore, such as right and wrong, trust and courage. While it is a fiction novel about a woman who refuses to be a victim, perhaps there is a lesson to be drawn from the story. In life everyone meets challenges that test us. It is how people deal with these challenges that is important and reflects who we are.
When you’re not flying planes and writing books, what do you do to wind down?
There is so much to do! Renovating, gardening, reading, exploring, writing articles, enjoying a coffee at Salamanca, photography, cooking – where does one stop?
I do go hunting and fishing and enjoy creating a fine meal from the food harvested from nature. The process covers the whole cycle of food from harvesting, preparation, cooking and then being plated on the table to enjoy.
What’s your favourite location in all of Australia and why?
Now that’s a tough question. I could talk about wilderness and the sense of peace it inspires. If pushed, I might have to say Cape York, only because it was there that I learned some special lessons about trust. An Aboriginal man took me on a walk through the bush. At each of six stops he presented me with a challenge. If I passed, there was no comment. We just kept walking until he presented the next challenge until we arrived at what he wanted to show me. This was real trust, one culture to another. I will always respect the journey and what was shared, so Cape York has to be it.
Are there any particular issues relating to the outdoors that you’re passionate about?
I am frustrated by the lack of understanding about the role of fire in the Australian landscape. The Aboriginal people understood it and used fire to manage the land with skill for long term sustainability. Within a short time after their removal from the land, wild fire became the norm. Plants and animals were not stimulated into new growth by low intensity fires but destroyed in searing conflagrations. With all our modern technology and education, we still have much to learn from the ancient practices of the Aboriginal peoples. Achieving balance between developing our society and managing the land is also a major challenge. The environment can only benefit if the extremes of opinion can be brought together for the common good.
What would you like to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?
Writing is a passion that can consume vast amounts of time and energy. It’s also very rewarding. I’ve written articles on education, the outdoors, aviation and general interest and there are more waiting in the wings. Australia has many stories that deserve to be told. Africa and the American west are the usual scenes for adventure stories. Where in the world did the longest horse back pursuit of an outlaw take place? In Australia, across 2,500 kilometres of outback wilderness. That policeman became a prime mover in the cattle industry in northern Australia and gold mining in Kalgoorlie. There are so many amazing stories in Australia and yet so often overseas is seen as better.
I would like to write another novel about Alex and Jed and how they resolve the tension between them. They have similar personalities and that can fire attraction as well as conflict. It would be interesting to pursue it while linking to another Australian story.
Peter d’Plesse’s Fire Eye will appear on shelves April 1 with an RRP of $29.99.