Karen Viggers

Interview with Karen Viggers: How Nature and People Merge.

Interview by Louise Sapphira

The Orchardist’s Daughter shows how you can be betrayed by nature or grow in its surroundings.

Karen Viggers’ latest novel The Orchardist’s Daughter reveals how coercive behaviour can exist within a family and community. Karen’s novel begins when Mikaela (Miki) and her older brother Kurt are left to their own means after a family tragedy. Consequently, they move to a southern Tasmanian timber town. Previously Miki was home-schooled and lived with her family in an apple orchard. But there is more to her story, and this unfolds when Miki meets an ally, Leon, the park ranger.

With a PhD in wildlife health and working as a domestic animal veterinarian, Karen has the foundation for writing a novel about wildlife and human relationships with domestic animals. However, research was still a large part of her writing process. Karen has an intimate knowledge of forests through her husband, a forest ecologist who has worked in the montane ash forests near Marysville for more than 35 years.

During our conversation, Karen talked about the Tasmanian landscape, including the temperate swamp gum forests ecosystems, and the politics of forest management.  Karen said that ‘the main local research that I did for this particular novel was the history of the timber industry, both on Bruny Island and also in the region around the Geeveston.’

Nature and its benefits are a main theme throughout the novel and are shown through the character Leon, who was first introduced in Karen’s novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife. Including Leon made sense to her as he is ‘somebody that cared about the environment.’ Through her research, Karen said the Tahune Airwalk in the Hartz Mountains made a ‘big impression’ and she discovered that ‘this is where I need to start writing the book. So, it started with Leon.’

Another theme in The Orchardist’s Daughter, Karen said, is the idea of ‘a young person really wanting to engage with the world, but not having the opportunity.’ Conflict in the novel, she said, is created with Miki as she both tries ‘to break out for herself into the world’ but ‘also tries to support Kurt, despite the way he treats her.’ But Miki and Kurt are different. Karen said, ‘Miki is able to reach out and take action for things that matter to her…like the forest, the trees, and the eagles…the Tasmanian devils.’

When asked about her approach to the genre of contemporary realist fiction, Karen said she tries ‘to understand what might be sitting beneath everything, and then the place, and the types of people that would live there, and the sorts of problems that they have.’ She said that The Orchardist’s Daughter ‘built from there [and] I didn’t realise I was writing about bullying and coercive control until I finished the book.’

In The Orchardist’s Daughter, Karen has her own views about forest management. However, she ‘wanted to be sympathetic to the loggers and their lives. I think it’s really important not to be didactic…but rather to observe some of the complexities of the issue. Allow people to make…discoveries about the issue they may not have thought of before.’

The Orchardist’s Daughter also interlaces community into the narrative. Karen talked about ‘what we ignore because of the intimacy in a small community. We are afraid to shine a spotlight on something because we don’t want to ruffle the waters.’ She continued, ‘maybe there are small ways that we can allow people to know they’re supported…and support can come from unexpected places.’ She said Miki had support from characters such as Wendy, a logger’s wife who notices how Kurt treats Miki. Geraldine from the town’s information centre also comes through for Miki and gives her books to read. Geraldine says to Miki:

‘Books show us the lives of others, because we can’t live all those lives – we can only live our own. Books can take us back in time or into the future. They expand our thinking. They show us new worlds. That’s what fiction is, what it does. It’s so powerful.’

Karen said:

‘All these small things are the stepping-stones to belonging and acceptance. When I started writing this book, I thought I was writing about belonging, but it became a lot more than that. It did become about community. It came to be about bullying and coercive control, and all those sorts of things as well.’

On her writing processes, Karen said, ‘I like to get a bit of a feeling, and then let things evolve organically because I find so much just comes out on the page as you start to write. You just start to discover things about a character, and the kind of things they like to do.’

Karen further explained:

‘But I guess underlying that is a sense that a character needs to go on a journey. They need to start here and potentially finish there, though I don’t always know exactly where to finish…For instance, Miki starts very much oppressed by her brother and then takes tiny steps towards freedom. It’s also good to have a toe in the world…That is where I find my characters, my narratives.’

Karen’s novels have also been published in Europe and languages other than English. On being published in France and how her novels are received, Karen said ‘often my books are…set in the Australian countryside and natural landscapes.’ She said the idea of walking in forests or along a beach with no one else there appeals to the French. She explained, ‘I have been told that the French feel like there is a lot already written about the Old World, about Europe, and they are really interested in what they call the New World. The French are also very interested in contentious issues…and they don’t necessarily like things all tied up.’

The current book Karen is writing is an urban novel and she said ‘it hovers above an issue about modern parenting and modern families, and the way parental attitudes can affect…children or their behaviour.’ She said, ‘I like to read, to challenge myself and learn something and think about things, and discuss it with other people. That’s probably what I try to leave my readers with.’

However, with the urban novel, Karen said she has found ‘it difficult not having that connection with nature. ‘One of my strengths is writing about nature,’ she said. ‘It speaks to me. Through my characters, and their connection with place and wildlife and nature [I try to] remind Australians of what we have.’ For instance, in The Orchardist’s Daughter when Miki walks through the forest, Karen wants ‘people to feel the place’ through sounds such as ‘the squeak of branches rubbing against each other, and the whispering going on up in the leaves… the minty smell of the forest.’

In Miki’s own words when she goes up to the forest:

‘Can you switch off the spotlight?’ Miki asked. ‘I love just listening to the forest at night.’


For more about Karen Viggers.