Jenny Tabakoff, author of No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality
Tell us about your latest creation:
“No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality” considers the fate of stranded, isolated groups from 134 BC to 2010 AD. What causes these small groups trapped in hostile and remote locations to turn on each other with catastrophic results? No Mercy outlines the physical and psychological changes that affect stranded disaster victims, and compares them to the rapid social implosion imagined in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”. Does reality support his dark, dystopian vision of an isolated micro-community? If anything, these historical groups descend deeper than even Golding pictured.
I grew up in Ryde, in the north of Sydney. After a considerable period living and working in London, I am back in Sydney again.
When you were a kid, what did you want to become? An author?:
An archaeologist – and then I realised that journalists and writers also dig up things, and don’t get as dirty.
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:
I enjoyed writing No Mercy because, as we learnt more and more about these largely forgotten incidents from history, we began to appreciate the parallels between the behaviour of different survivor groups. When people are stranded together and pushed to their limits, whatever the situation, they are driven by many of the same factors, with many of the same results. When people allow their primitive human hardwiring to take over, the result can very quickly be catastrophe. Individuals tend to smugly believe, “I would never behave like that”, but the more we looked into history, the more we realised it takes great effort of will and great leadership to behave in a way that is better than “every man for himself”. Unfortunately, most survivor groups seem to behave badly.
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:
Unfortunately, all too often I have to wrestle my children off my desktop. My desk is very messy, but I am a great believer in creative mess. Every time I tidy up I feel that little bit more dumb.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:
I love old books – especially crazy old illustrated books, especially very old children’s books. If it’s new books, give me histories, biographies and first-hand
accounts of events. I also love the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the Daily Mail website.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:
The William books, by Richmal Compton. And they are still so funny.
If you were a literary character, who would you be?:
Rather than an imaginary character, I’d choose the author William Golding: he instinctively understood the dark side of humanity and depicted it with incredible accuracy in “Lord of the Flies”.
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:
Reading. Oh yes, and kayaking on Sydney’s waterways.
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?:
Satay chicken skewers, lemony and spicy and smothered with peanut sauce. If I found myself on a desert island, I’d be dreaming of them. I never enjoying drinking anything as much as a very cold beer on a very hot day. On a cold day, make that a cappuccino.
Who is your hero? Why?:
I can’t pick between Thomas Musgrave and Francois Raynal, who were both on the Grafton in the sub-Antarctic in 1864. Musgrave for showing amazing compassion and leadership in keeping his little group together; Raynal for his extraordinary ingenuity in designing and making objects that made their 19 months in that desolate spot not just tolerable but comfortable. They were such a great team.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:
Standing up to what seems to be a general belief that publishing is doomed. My view is that, in an age of so much rubbish, there is a greater hunger than ever for real books – both on paper and in e-form – that are the result of research, hard work and considered, polished writing.