Setting the scenes for Let Her Go

Setting the scenes for Let Her Go

Writing Let Her Go was a different experience to writing Fractured. Those of you who have read my first novel will know that it was set in Sydney, a city where I lived for eight years, but in a way, the setting was secondary to the story, that of a family going through the horror of postnatal mental illness.

When I started writing Let Her Go, I began with the situation that I wanted to explore: the ethics of reproductive medicine, and the psychological effects on everyone involved in a surrogacy arrangement. In this first draft, the setting was essentially blank: I had written the characters’ stories but the world they lived in was quite bare. I didn’t find this as much of an issue in Fractured, as much of it was set in a psychiatric hospital, and the stark setting suited it. But for Let Her Go, I wanted to write a richer story that involved the environment of my current home town: Perth, Western Australia.

One day, I was on a friend’s boat just off Rottnest Island when he told me the story of a man called C.Y. O Connor, an engineer who designed the ‘golden pipeline’ which still carries water today from Mundaring Weir in the hills of Perth to the goldfields of Kalgoorlie. He told me about the tragic story of this man who, before the first drop of water ever flowed into the pipeline, rode his horse into the ocean at a beach south of Fremantle, then fatally shot himself. In that place, now named C.Y. O Connor beach, there is a bronze statue of him on his horse about ten metres offshore, and as the tides come in, the statue is gradually covered by the ocean. I went to visit, and was struck by the eerie atmosphere there, and had the idea for a scene:

I followed the trail further by taking a trip out of Perth, over the hills and the escarpment to Mundaring Weir, the incredibly beautiful and atmospheric dam where O Connor’s golden pipeline begins. There is a small memorial there to him: a bust of him and a display of his engineering achievements behind scratched perspex windows. I walked over the dam wall, and heard my voice echo around the valley along with the cry of a kookaburra. And with that, I had another scene writing itself in my head. I took a drive along the road which follows the above -ground pipeline, seeing the small towns which had sprung up as camps for the men working out in the desert heat to build it.

photo 5-1
Looking down the dam wall at Mundaring Weir


One evening, as I sat on the grass at Cottesloe beach with my children, eating an ice cream and watching the sun set and silhouette Rottnest Island, the opening scene of Let Her Go jumped into my mind. I quickly scribbled some notes and then that night, wrote what is now the prologue to the book. It’s one of the scenes in the book that didn’t need much editing from that first draft, and that to me is a sign that the magic of writing is working. Once I had put my character on that ferry to Rottnest, I decided to go there with my family for some research, knowing now where I would set much of the book. I was also inspired to use Rottnest as a setting as I’d recently read Caribou Island by David Vann (an amazing book, one of my favourites) and loved the idea of the dual nature of islands, where the sea surrounding you is both protection from the outside world, but also a prison.

As I waited with my husband and three daughters to catch the ferry to Rottnest from the ‘B Shed’ in Fremantle, I saw another statue of CY O Connor towering above us:

CY O Connor bust
CY O Connor statue

Again I grabbed my notebook: it was as if all the pieces of the novel were coming together, and everywhere I looked I could see the scenes of Let Her Go, and I could almost hear the words and sentences writing themselves. That was the most amazing feeling; it’s what I loved about writing Let Her Go – the process seemed almost effortless at times.

On Rottnest, I had planned to take a tour of the Aboriginal history of the island only to find that the tour had been cancelled because of a dispute between the local indigenous people and the island authorities. In was reported that Aboriginal elders had cursed the island in a secret ceremony. This fascinated me; I was later to hear about a curse that had also been placed on C.Y. O Connor.

On Rottnest, I cycled around the bays and inland saltwater lakes, and visited the open ground that had been a makeshift Aboriginal cemetery for all the prisoners who’d died on the island. I saw the old prison, which is now used as five star accommodation – guests now pay to sleep in what were the cells where terrified men were held.

Looking out over Geordie Bay on Rottnest Island

Back on the mainland, I went on a tour of Fremantle to learn about the Indigenous history. It was run by Greg Nannup, of Indigenous Tours WA, the son of Dr Noel Nannup – the man who has reportedly been involved in the cursing of Rottnest Island.

Both Greg and a local volunteer at The Roundhouse told me about the myth that C.Y. O Connor’s death was because of another curse. It is said that the Noongar people were so angry with him for one of his other engineering achievements – the building of Fremantle Harbour – that they cursed him.

“They sang to make him crazy. “

And there it was, the link between the places I’d visited, and the characters’ stories. I knew that the settings were just right for my story.

Have you visited any of the places that appear in Let Her Go?

Has a book ever made you want to go and see a place that appears in it?

2 thoughts on “Setting the scenes for Let Her Go”

  • Rottnest’s history is horrifically sad. Poor old O’Connor, his story is sad, too. It is an eerie coincidence—some might say it’s not a coincidence—that your jigsaw made itself. I find that it inevitably does when we just trust the process.

    By the way, I’m about one-quarter of the way through ‘Let Her Go’ and loving it!

    • Yes, Rottnest’s history (like many parts of Australia!) is terrible. I sat at the edge of the desolate patch of ground where the unmarked graves lie, it’s very sad. And you’re right about trusting the process!

      And thanks for your kind comments about Let Her Go! It was great to meet you at last at the launch!