Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Where did the idea for the pilgrimage to the big things come from?
I originally wanted to write a story about a woman doing the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan. I read a lot of books about it and it sounded wonderful, but I wasn’t sure when I was ever going to find sixty days to do it — I have a job and kids — and I didn’t think I could write about the walk without doing it. So, rather than hold off writing the book until I could do the pilgrimage, I decided to write about someone who wants to do it, but can’t.
And the big things... I was trying to think where you would go to do a ‘temple’ pilgrimage in Australia and the idea came to me one day as I was driving past the big prawn — more or less as it does for Arkie. I suppose big things appeal to my sense of the ridiculous. I like the way they become totems of the towns that have them and how surprisingly passionate people become about them. For me, they evoke a sense of nostalgia. I have extremely vivid memories of visiting the Big Banana and the Big Pineapple as a child and they seemed like the most exciting places in the world. Like Arkie, I still think there is something ‘weird and sweet’ about them.
2. Arkie’s Lucky Gods play a significant role in the book. Where did they come from?
I have been to Japan four times, so clearly I like it. One of the things I particularly enjoy is seeing the Shinto shrines dotted all over the country. Everywhere you go there is a tori gate that welcomes you to the spirit world. The Shinto religion has many gods and even objects like trees or rocks are revered for their kami or spirit.
On my second trip to Japan I discovered the Seven Lucky Shinto Gods. Soon I started seeing them everywhere. They seemed to be calling me, so I bought a little model of the gods and took them home.
I am a bit of a collector of significant objects. When I start a new writing project I am often scanning for a touchstone that will symbolise the story. The object sits next to my computer while I write and it gives me courage. I suppose that’s superstitious, but writing is a leap of faith and you take help where you can.
It wasn’t until I had those gods sitting on my desk that this story really started to take shape for me. While I’m a pretty rational person usually, when it comes to writing I need my lucky object.
3. There is an element of magic in the story. Is that something you believe in?
Yes and no. I come from a scientific background, so I’m basically a pragmatist. But on the other hand, I tend to think that there’s more going on in the world than meets the eye. I think every writer has moments when life imitates art in a way which raises hairs on the back of your neck. Coincidences multiply until you start to feel that the act of writing is almost magical.
I had a couple of funny experiences when writing ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage’. I wrote the scene at the Big Redback where Arkie and Haruko find a garden gnome that looks like one of the Seven Lucky Gods early on, before I’d been to any of the Big Things. Eventually I decided I’d better go to the Big Redback and check it out. And lo and behold when I got there I saw this gnome nestled among the bushes exactly as I had already described it in the story.
Another strange thing happened one day when I was struggling with the story and decided to go down to the beach for a swim. I threw down my towel and noticed an abandoned dog collar next to it. The rusty old tag on the collar read ‘mojo.’ Just like Arkie, I had found my mojo! The mojo dog tag immediately joined my little shrine of lucky objects next to my computer.
I don’t think that there’s anything magical about these events, but it is so interesting the way that once you tune in to something you start to see it everywhere. I expect that’s because you’re so hyper-alert to your story you start to feel like you’re inside it.
I introduced a dash of magical realism into my story in order to give Arkie’s quest a bit of a fairytale feel. I wanted to lift it a little above the mundane. I love Japanese magical realists like Haruki Murakami and with a bit of luck some of his playful ‘anything goes’ spirit has infused itself into the book.
4. Have you visited a lot of big things?
The part of the world I live in is great for all sorts of reasons; surf, lifestyle, sun and... big things. In the course of researching ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage’ my son and I embarked on a big things tour. He’s a keen filmmaker so he made a short film about it. Our tour included the big Banana, Prawn, Avocado, Pie, Redback Spider, Pineapple, Macadamia, Cow, Shell, Pelican and Lawnmower. We had a lot of fun doing the sorts of things that Arkie does — eating a pie at the Big Pie, eating fruit at the Big Avocado and cruising the kinky banana souvenirs at the Big Banana. My visit to the Big Macadamia was a bit like Arkie’s too — very intrepid.
At the time I did this tour, back in 2011, Ballina’s Big Prawn was just a shell and the closure of the Big Pineapple was breaking news. A local newspaper had a picture of a sad family who had supposedly driven all the way from Sydney just to go to the Big Pineapple, only to find out it was closed. But since then, both the Big Prawn and the Big Pineapple have happily experienced a new lease of life so I have reflected these changes in the book.
5. Have you ever undertaken a pilgrimage?
I haven’t, but I know people who have and some of them have changed their lives profoundly as a result. There is clearly a transformative aspect to the process and that interests me. While writing ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage’ I read a lot of books — both memoir and scholarly works — about pilgrimages and found it all fascinating. The concept of the pilgrimage as a spiritual journey seems to go across so many cultures.
While the idea of doing a pilgrimage certainly attracts me, when I travel my priority is usually to visit wild natural places. I have a background as a wilderness guide, so being in the bush is something I treasure. I do love seeing temples and shrines in wild places, the way you find them in places like Japan and Nepal. They add a spiritual dimension to being in nature which I enjoy.
6. Why surrealism?
I’ve had a bit of a thing about surrealists ever since I visited Salvador Dali’s house in Spain, a long, long time ago. I loved the floppy clocks, the faceless women and the strange titles. Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone is a personal favourite.
I go through a phase when I’m writing where I become a total bower bird. If something interesting happens to me at this point it often makes its way into the book. It was at this stage that I attended a fantastic exhibition about surrealism in Brisbane.
I was young when I visited Dali’s house and less bothered by the fact that I had no idea what it was all about. However, visiting the surrealists in Brisbane I found myself rather perplexed. Why was there a table with the head of a wolf, why a woman’s face with breasts for eyes and a crutch for a mouth, why was a coffin reclining on a chaise longue? Damn it, I wanted to know.
Then I had a light-bulb moment. The reason surrealism speaks to me is because it joins two or more disparate objects or ideas to create new meaning, which is exactly what I do when I write. In this book I have the unlikely assemblage of a Japanese pilgrimage, big things and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — it’s textbook surrealism.
In a way, I think surrealism is a ‘make your own fun’ kind of art form. It’s enjoyable to find your own meaning in works of art — and that goes for novels too.
7. Why did you choose to reference the ‘Wizard of Oz’ within your story?
I didn’t! Writing is a very organic process for me. I never plan and I often don’t make connections about the overall themes of books until quite late in the piece. I had basically written the whole book when I went on a five-day writing retreat with a group of other writers. I took a break from wrestling with the editing one afternoon to do a bit of yoga. And there in down face dog I had an epiphany — my story was basically a retelling of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
At that stage I tinkered around a bit, including a couple of details from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ within the story. The basic plot and the characters were all there. I think ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is just such an archetypal story about overcoming obstacles on a journey that it found its way in. The mind works in mysterious ways.