Creative writing doctoral student Kylie Stevenson reflects on life in a crumbling community in the middle of nowhere that she encountered while on a writer’s retreat.
When Kylie Stevenson went to Larrimah, 500 kilometres south of Darwin to work on her first novel, she was struck by the quirky human dynamics of the small remote town with a population of 11. Its only real attraction – a pub that’s adopted the Pink Panther as its mascot.
Kylie, a University of Wollongong (UOW) Doctor of Creative Arts (DCA) candidate based in Darwin, was recently awarded first prize in the creative non-fiction category of the Northern Territory Literary Awards, for her creative writing piece Notes from a Dying Town.
Kylie was the inaugural recipient of the Northern Territory Writer’s Centre residency in Larrimah. The residency comprised a two-week writer’s retreat staying at the Larrimah Hotel, a legacy from the late Darwin author and journalist Andrew McMillan, who would go there every year to write. Following his death in 2012, he left a bequest to the NT Writers’ Centre to fund an annual Larrimah writer’s retreat.
Kylie, originally from Sutherland NSW, moved to Darwin to take a sub-editor role at the NT News 10 years ago, where she worked up until starting her doctorate through UOW a year and a half ago.
The road to Larrimah
The 38-year-old emerging writer said the purpose for taking on the writer’s retreat was to make a good dent in writing her first novel, but she got far more than she bargained for. When she returned to Darwin she realised she had so much good material from her two weeks in residence at Larrimah, a place she described in her piece as a “desolate furnace”.
She said it was never her intention to write about Larrimah, and the piece was only penned a few weeks before submitting it for the literary awards. It her first time entering and she admits the win came as a welcome surprise.
“Writing is pretty solitary and you don’t get a lot of feedback a lot of the time, so to have a bit of validation that you’re doing something right is very nice.”
Kylie added Larrimah was both challenging and rewarding in different ways.
“It was a pretty strange experience. It was a great place to get work done because I went in October and at that time of year it was starting to get pretty hot, most days were up around 40 degrees. I had to just stay in my room and write, there were no other options. I couldn’t even go for a walk if it was after eight o’clock in the morning, because it was just too hot.
Walking on eggshells
“The longer I was there, the more I discovered the town was unique and interesting,” Kylie said.
She got to know Barry, the pub owner in his 70s, who has been in Larrimah for two decades. A couple in their 40s, Karen and Mark, who planned on staying overnight but ended up there for 18 months after Barry convinced them to stay on and run the pub for him.
Kylie’s piece comically highlights the strained relationships that exist in a town of that size – something she came to witness in the two short weeks she was there.
Karen reveals no one likes ‘that mob over the road’. They also don’t like the lady who runs the teahouse up the road, or the hermit down the road who makes unwarranted complaints to the local council.Kylie Stevenson, Notes from a Dying Town
“It’s one of those things when you look at a small town like that of 11 people you wonder if you have to be a bit strange to end up in that town or if you become strange from living in that town – I’m not sure which happens first. Everyone was really lovely to me, but as it turns out, not always so lovely to each other,” Kylie said.
She reflected on the typical dynamics of living in such a simple environment and the inevitability of conflict.
“All it takes is for one person to do something that gets a couple of people off-side and then the battle lines are drawn and they just to have to all pick their alliances,” she said.
“I found it really surprising; I expected to go to this tight-knit community where everyone was friendly to each other and helped each other out and that just wasn’t the case. They were all able to live there and get on with life, it was just an interesting dynamic.”
Nothing new in the old town
The more Kylie engaged with the townsfolk, the more she came to understand tensions have been simmering for some time. Karen mentioned Andrew McMillan had previously written about the sour relations within Larrimah. Upon further research, Kylie came across an article he’d written for the Griffith Review that closely mirrored her experience, only with almost double the population; a repetition of behaviour she draws on in her piece.
It reads like fiction: an outback town of 20 people; two rival progress associations; a family set on sabotage; feuds over stolen recipes for homemade buffalo pie; and a pink pub that seemed to be both the centre of controversy and the only saving grace in this desolate furnace.Kylie Stevenson, Notes from a Dying Town
Kylie shared her highs and lows of Larrimah admitting there really wasn’t much going on that would be worth stopping off for.
“It was great learning about the area, it hadn’t always been this falling apart town, there had been times in history where it had been quite busy with the construction of the overland telegraph and the railway, and during the war it was a very busy hub for Australian and American soldiers who had been based down there.
“The heat was pretty hard to handle and the isolation … there was no mobile reception, there was Wi-Fi, so I was able to get in contact with people through Messenger. But that isolation was great for me for getting the writing done. I don’t know how people can do that long term, it must be really difficult,” Kylie said.
A deep dive into family history
The two weeks of relative solitude enabled Kylie to write a large portion of her novel – the creative component of her doctorate – which is based on her thesis research examining the Konfrontasi, the Indonesia-Malaysia conflict from 1963 to 1966.
Kylie’s interest in the subject was prompted by a close family connection to the conflict, sparking a desire to further investigate this relatively recent, yet little known historic event.
“My grandfather served in the Confrontation and in the Malayan Emergency so the whole family went and lived over there. My mother was about eight years old when they were living in Malacca and had two younger siblings and my nanna was also living there while my pop was away for most of the time,” she said.
Uncovering the unspoken details
Her research indicates it was a largely hushed confrontation involving many Australian soldiers.
“There’s not a lot written about it, it was all top secret for 30 years, there was an embargo, none of the men could speak about what happened,” Kylie said.
“I’m interested in covering that in my thesis, if keeping things quiet for 30 years preserves memories or if it makes you forget because you haven’t been around those memories and reminded of them as much as you might be in other conflicts like Vietnam, or some of those more well-known conflicts that were in the news at the time and are constantly in creative works and in non-fiction as well.”
As part of her thesis, Kylie has been gathering personalised stories from ex-servicemen and their wives who lived through the battle. These stories, some of which have been collected in-situ of the conflict, are being merged to form a fictionalised account of what happened during the Konfrontasi, for her novel.
“Last year some veterans had a reunion in Borneo to mark the 50 year anniversary of the cease-fire of the conflict, so I managed to wrangle an invite to go along and interviewed some of them there.”
She said researching the subject has proved quite challenging, partially due to the unspoken details but also because Australia’s role in the conflict doesn’t appear to be very well-documented.
“I had been to Kuching (Malaysia) before and tried to find out about what my Pop had been doing there, but it was quite difficult, a lot of local people didn’t have any idea what I was talking about when I asked questions. A lot of people in that area didn’t know about Australia’s involvement in the conflict – they knew the British were involved, but we were still linked with British Army back then,” she said.
After 18 months of solid researching and writing, Kylie has her sights set on completing the first draft of her novel within the next two months – a deadline she needs to stick with, before the next life chapter unfolds with the birth of her first child in October.