A corner of my mind with Michelle Johnston

This week I reviewed Dustfall, the debut novel by the incredibly talented Perth author, Michelle Johnston.  Dustfall is a fictitious account of the former mining town, Wittenoom.

Michelle Johnston Book Review

When I began a writing mentorship in 2016 for my manuscript, Little did I know, set in a fictitious town based on Wittenoom, my mentor told me of another Perth writer whose story was also set in Wittenoom.

‘Wittenoom must weigh heavily on the WA psyche,’ she quipped.

Not long after, I stumbled across Michelle Johnston on Twitter and recently met her at Perth Writers Week.  I actually interrupted Michelle quietly reading, just for the chance to say hello, and if she was annoyed, she certainly didn’t show it.  Sorry Michelle!

Having studied asbestos as part of my undergraduate science degree, Dustfall called to me.

Michelle is also an Emergency Physician, and I couldn’t think of a person more qualified, to tell this story.

Review of Dustfall

Dustfall_cover

Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall follows the encounters of two doctors, Dr Lou Fitzgerald and Dr Raymond Filigree, in the former asbestos mining town of Wittenoom.  In 1966, Raymond has run away from his job and life in England to take up post at the ill-equipped Wittenoom hospital, near the end of the mine’s operation.

Lou is a young doctor, seeking solace and reflection, who stumbles across the abandoned husk of a town, some thirty years later.  Their journeys place a microscope on two parts of the one story about the price of greed and negligence and the consequential loss of lives and hope.

There is a third character in Dustfall, too.  The town of Wittenoom itself.  Johnston deftly paints the now ruined town as yet another pained victim.  The playing children and beautiful gorges provide an offering of what it might have been, if the miners and their explosives hadn’t arrived.  The loneliness and ruin of its streets, a reminder of the timeless impact to the beauty of this part of Western Australia.

happy-teenagers-in-wittenoom-with-tailings-in-background.jpg

Both Lou and Raymond labour over their pasts, their errors and omissions, and yet it’s so very clear to the reader, that these characters are kind, somewhat fragile souls, likely victims of medical systems fraught by too many patients, and insufficient support.

In sharp contrast to the doctors’ humanity, are the mining executives, who are wilfully negligent and yet escape the clutches of guilt.  In a state still greedy for the mining dollar, this story is somewhat cautionary.

Dustfall is a striking novel, one that I couldn’t put down.  Johnston entwines her impressive medical lexicon with her repertoire of poetry to form prose that is uniquely distinctive and rhythmic, and leaves me wanting more.

I held my breath both in anticipation of events unfolding and at the sensation of fibres rising up off the page and floating into my lungs.  And while this story is one of devastation, there are also lighter moments that surprise and offer hope of new beginnings.

Dustfall is a deeply Western Australian story.  The history of Wittenoom is in our bones (and our lungs).  We’ve all heard it and many of us know or have met someone affected by this tragedy.

Every day when I go to work, to my shiny, pristine office in the city, I sit just metres from a lab where asbestos samples are analysed.  These days it is called ‘contamination.’  It is a constant reminder to me that this story is not over.

Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall is a beautifully crafted, lyrical memorial to those lost and a plea for us to do better.

A corner of my mind with Michelle Johnston

When I contacted Michelle, she very kindly replied with these generous and well considered answers.  I honestly don’t know how she found the time and I’m extremely grateful.

Q.  I understand that you first stumbled across Wittenoom in 1991 and returned again in 2014.

As a fourth year uni student, I studied asbestos exposure of former employees of the now closed, Westrail Midland Railway Workshops.  This filled me with a burrowing fear of asbestos that has never left me.

I wonder, how did you prepare for your visit?  I’m hoping that you wore protective equipment.

A.  I’m afraid to say I did not.  Sensible, conservative decisions are not my strongest point.  Yes, there is unquestionably a risk visiting this ghost of a town, where the tailings and fibres still lie like toxic waterfalls though the abandoned streets, but you have to remember, people have lived there for decades.  They remain disease-free. This exposure risk is considerably different to the period when the workers were inhaling the fibres in their billions, day in and day out, in the mills and the mines – where they couldn’t see their own hands in front of their face, and they did not have the whisper of protective equipment.

dust-from-mill

The single fibre theory – where the desperately unfortunate have developed mesothelioma from inhaling a single rogue fibre – informs us how incredibly toxic crocidolite (the blue asbestos) is.  But many of those cases have arisen outside Wittenoom, from the pervasive nature of asbestos in our everyday environment.

We all take risks, in everything we do.  It became important, when writing the novel, to get the small details right – the temperature of the air, the smell of the eucalypts, the songs of the birds, the feel of the ground and the leaves, and I had to go back up to Wittenoom to get the senses of it right.  When you’re trying to write an immersive novel, you have to make sure you’re understanding the nuances of place, sensing it, doing the setting justice.

‘It became important…to get the small details right – the temperature of the air, the smell of the eucalypts, the songs of the birds…’ 

Q.  Being an Emergency Physician must be one of the most demanding professions, both physically and mentally.  I imagine long hours with little rest and even less thanks.  For many, writing requires significant emotional investment, in the characters, the scenes.  How do you straddle both professions and deliver a novel of such beauty?  I imagine that you don’t sleep much.

A.  I’m not sure myself.  To unpack your excellent question, yes, being an Emergency Physician is demanding.  But that’s possibly the attraction.  We are entrusted with doing our very best at work, when people are at their worst.  It makes me appreciate my ‘human-ness’ every time I set foot in the ED.  I have a great respect for the human story, for the individual: the unique narratives that make us special on this tiny inconsequential blue-green planet.  Having said that, I have been a doctor for 27 years.  It had become time to rearrange my work priorities.  I now only work half-time.  Writing has become deeply important to me; the act of writing well, communicating those stories as best I can, trying to produce works of artistry and creativity.

I am only a beginner in this literary world, so I need to dedicate a large amount of time to reading, to thinking, to honing those sentence building skills, those story-telling skills, the metaphor mining, the noticing of details that go into the foundations of a good book.  I sleep a lot.  I am queen of the nap.  It makes for great epiphanies on waking.

‘I am queen of the nap.  It makes for great epiphanies on waking.’

The rest of it is mainly discipline – the sort of bullish discipline that means I can now task-switch – when it’s time to run a team managing a haemorrhaging trauma victim then that’s all there is, but when writing time comes, I can float away into other colourful, absurd, gentle worlds.  This took a bit of practice, I can assure you.

Q.  They say write what you know.  One of your main characters, Lou, is a doctor and a writer, who has just resigned from her position.  You are a doctor and author.  You’re not thinking of resigning from medicine are you?

A.  I do toy with it.  I still, however, have a (possibly) naïve belief that I can do a bit of good as an Emergency Physician.  Some days I’m not sure.  Medicine is a strange science – although we’ve come a long way in our understanding of human pathophysiology, there remains much we don’t know.  I often think we are still at Neanderthal level when it comes to managing the complexities of humans gone wrong.  There are days when I think perhaps the only good I’ve done is hold the hand of someone dying, or reassured an anxious relative, rather than ‘saving a life’ in glamorous ER style.

But becoming a medical specialist is a weighty investment; it takes decades of training and experience to reach a standard to be able to safely and competently manage the sorts of critically ill and undifferentiated patients that crash through our doors, and it feels unconscionable to discard this just yet.  I’m also heavily involved in teaching and mentoring of new emergency specialists, and if my only legacy is teaching our bright young things to be kind doctors, who listen to their patients, as well as knowing their stuff, then perhaps my time will have been worth it.  Sorry Nicole, you didn’t ask for a confessional.

‘…if my only legacy is teaching our bright young things to be kind doctors, who listen to their patients…then perhaps my time will have been worth it.’

Raymond was, in the novel, someone far closer to my heart than Lou.  I loved his bumbling confusion, his adoration of poetry, his belief that we could learn from philosophy the mysteries of medicine.

The medical errors made by both of the protagonists were scenes cobbled together from a lifetime of my own experiences, and watching the devastating impact even the small mistakes have upon the perpetrator.  The juxtaposition of how an individual deals with their mistakes with that of corporate behaviour fascinated me, and became the beating heart of the novel.


I didn’t ask for a confessional Michelle, but I’m very grateful for your heartfelt contribution.  I look forward to reading more of your beautiful words.

Dustfall was published by University of Western Australia Publishing in February 2018 and is available for sale in all good book stores.

All photos of Wittenoom are reproduced from the WA Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety website:  https://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe/wittenoom-images

For information on asbestos related disease, visit the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc at: http://www.asbestosdiseases.org.au

 

 

 

 

 

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