I’m at Varuna, the National Writers House in the Blue Mountains, when I get a message that the manager of the Bendigo Writers Festival wants to speak with me. I have a sinking feeling I know what the outcome of this phone call will be, and sure enough, several hours later, I find myself agreeing to withdraw from my appearances at the festival in August.
While all it takes is a laptop, or a pen and a piece of paper to write, one also needs encouragement, space, time and, most crucially, the acknowledgement that engaging with and interpreting the world around you is a worthy, even necessary, project. Varuna, the big yellow house in the mountains, is that acknowledgement made bricks and mortar.
Given that I was only a couple of days into what I hoped would be a week of discovering the shape of my next book, it was unnerving and distracting to be confronted with the reality of being excluded from the festival on the basis of objections to my last, Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust.
I did have forewarning. Late last year, following the publication of Wedderburn, I accepted an invitation to appear at the festival. Bendigo is the closest regional centre to Wedderburn, where the triple murder at the centre of my book occurred. Given the blowback that had come my way through social media and in a pretty relentless email campaign that my publisher bore the brunt of, I suspected there might be those who would be less than happy to see me invited to the festival, but it was months away and I hoped the furore would have abated by then. And it had.
Most writers, I think, embark on a writing project seeking to understand, rather than create a stir. At least, that’s what I did. Through an accident of knowing someone who knew someone, I became interested in the terrible events of October 2014, that ended with Peter and Mary Lockhart and Mary’s son Greg Holmes losing their lives at Wedderburn in Central Victoria.
I began tentatively attending pre-trial hearings concerning the accused murderer and testing the water as to who in the community and among the victims’ family and loved ones might be prepared to speak with me.
I became aware, early on, that there were differing perspectives on motive, the characters of both the victims and the man who admitted to killing them. It was plain, too, that in any community, particularly one as small as Wedderburn, that such a horrifying act of violence would be a destabilising and sometimes polarising event. In addition, of course, the grief, shock and trauma of the those who loved both the victims and the perpetrator would be immense.
I understood all this; only a fool would not. I persisted as gently and carefully as I could in my research, interviewing and writing, because understanding what drives people to commit acts of extreme violence and the ways individuals can become isolated within their communities, and building empathy with those who suffer are, I believe, worthwhile and important aims.
Following its publication, I promoted Wedderburn through numerous speaking engagements in regional Victoria and met only respectful and engaged discussion about the tensions in some rural communities, the darkness that lies in all human hearts and the possibility of rebuilding shattered lives.
As the Bendigo Writers Festival approached, I was feeling more confident that my appearance wouldn’t cause a fuss, particularly as none of my sessions were discussing the book directly. Then I was alerted that the festival had received complaints from some of the victims’ family members about my inclusion. There were demands that I be dropped from the program.
The campaign then became relentless. Vociferous attacks and threats to disrupt the festival escalated. State and federal representatives were contacted, Bendigo councillors were lobbied and pressure brought to bear in ways that were, I’m led to believe, intimidatory and aggressive.
In retrospect, I capitulated more quickly than I would wish. But I think it was also inevitable. I was asked to withdraw, and I acquiesced. I hate to think of other festival participants and attendees being intimated or made to feel unsafe because of my presence.
At the time of Wedderburn’s publication, and in the process of writing it, I had to confront the question as to what right I had to tell this story which, it could be argued, was not mine to tell. It’s a question that many writers, and certainly, all true crime writers must answer for themselves.
I believe, as do my publishers, that the intent of literary true crime is to generate empathy and to contribute to discussions that we are already having in our society including questions about the role of gender and power in violence; about our capacity to recover from trauma; and the difficulty of establishing objective truth.
Writers festivals must remain places where divisive and difficult topics can be debated with nuance and respect. I am disappointed that I will not be able to contribute to discussions on some such subjects at this year’s Bendigo Writers Festival and dismayed that festival organisers and members of the Bendigo Council have been subject to intimidation.
I still have a few days left at Varuna and I will cherish them, because I continue to believe that writing and the ongoing quest to understand and interpret the world matter.
Maryrose Cuskelly is the author of Wedderburn, published by Allen & Unwin.