There are certain lengths writers will go to get inside the heads of their characters, but most don’t go to the same extremes as Alice Springs author Jennifer Mills.
Mills’ second novel Gone follows the story of ex-prisoner and vagabond Frank as he hitchhikes across Australia to rediscover his past. Mills wrote the story while living in a car on the outskirts of Alice Springs.
Mills told the Star Observer although her homeless stint wasn’t as severe as it sounds, her decision to rough it was central to getting inside the head of her rugged main character.
“I decided to become a full-time writer and the way I went about that was trying to reduce my expenses down to almost nothing, so I stopped paying rent and started working on this book,” Mills said.
“The experiences of not having a home was really important to the book. It was essential to get the perspective right.”
Mills has her fair share of colourful hitchhiking tales. She left her native Sydney in her early 20s to hit the highways in search of inspiration and adventure, and ended up in the Red Centre.
“There is really something about the place. It’s a magical place to live, for all of its problems. It’s very beautiful and fascinating, and there are really interesting combinations of people,” Mills said.
“I think a lot of different people end up in the desert. There’s this romance about it, this idea of running away from something, trying to come to terms with something.
“The character Frank is very much trying to come to terms with his past and I think the experience of my time in Alice Springs really set the novel with that theme.”
Although borrowing much from her own experiences on the road, Mills said the book did present its challenges.
“It was very technically challenging to write from the perspective of someone who isn’t really sure what’s real and what isn’t. It was also technically challenging to keep it interesting because [hitchhiking] can be quite repetitive.
“You’re standing on the side of the road, waiting, then you get picked up, you have a conversation, then you’re back on the side of the road again.
“I was trying to let Frank go through that cycle and gain something and learn something along the way, so there are little developments that keep it interesting.
“Each ride is a little story in itself, so each character teaches him something and he teaches them something.”
Mills admitted she borrowed heavily from the stories she heard from people who gave her a lift. The book is dedicated to the drivers and truckies she met along the way.
“You get these really intimate kind of exchanges in a very short space of time,” she said.
“I shamelessly use the stories of a lot of people I’ve hitchhiked with, and a lot of people with their permission.
“When you say you’re a writer it actually makes them open up. They get excited and say ‘Oh, I’ve got a story for you’. Especially in Australia, everyone’s got a yarn, everyone’s got an interesting story and that definitely comes out on the highway.”
Despite the apparent dangers of this method of story collection, the slight-of-stature Mills assures she had few safety concerns when accepting rides.
“I’ve never had any worries for my safety in Australia. I’ve actually had very, very few worries internationally,” she said.
“One guy pulled a knife on me in the United States, but he only did it to prove to me how dangerous it was to hitchhike.
“He turned out to be a really lovely guy and we had an interesting conversation about family violence, but I’ve never had a problem.”
Mills said one of the joys of meeting strangers for stretches of a journey, never to see them again, is the confessional turn conversation takes.
“I met a man who said he had two families in Queensland.
“He was a trucker and they didn’t know about each other and he was sad because the kids were becoming adults and leaving home. He was getting ready for retirement, and he had to choose which family he was going to retire with.”
Mills said she had a real connection with drivers many times.
“You get some people who really surprise you. I got picked up by a truck driver last year who was really into writers and reading. We talked the whole time about Australian literature and he liked listening to audio books.
“He said he’d be listening to Radio National and sometimes he’d have to pull the truck over so he didn’t go out of reception and so he could hear the story finish.”
Mills concedes the only time hitchhiking posed a problem was when she and her wife wanted to catch a plane for their honeymoon and were stuck in Tennant Creek for two days.
Mills ‘married’ her female partner last year and said the pair decided not wait for laws to change.
“We didn’t actually get married. It’s not legal to get married. We got bored with waiting so we just declared ourselves to be married.
“It’s just a technicality for me. If we wasted all our time waiting for a politician to allow us to do the things we’re already doing, we’d never achieve anything.
“Inequality is wrong and frustrating, but it’s also not the most glaring social problem in the world and there are a lot of other kinds of inequality in Australia we should be addressing as well.”
info: Gone is out this month, published by University of Queensland Press.