What are the truths behind stereotypes of Australia — and what are the things that might surprise you? Pamela Cook talks about rural places, diversity of people and landscape, and the attractions of the city in this interview.
Pamela Cook writes rural and contemporary Australian fiction featuring complex women and tangled family relationships and is a podcaster at Writes4Women.
- What might surprise travelers about Australia
- Attractions of the rural Australian life
- Observing life in smaller towns and being inspired to write about them
- Highlights of Sydney and the ease of public transport
- Thoughts on post-pandemic travel
- Book recommendations set in Australia
You can find Pamela Cook at PamelaCook.com.au
For more on Australia, check out Sacred Australia and the Northern Territory with Amanda Markham, and Outback Nights and City Days, my personal experience of Australia.
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Pamela Cook writes rural and contemporary Australian fiction featuring complex women and tangled family relationships, and is a podcaster at Writes4Women. Welcome, Pamela.
Pamela: Hi, Jo. Great to be here on Books and Travel.
Joanna: I’m excited to have you here. So let’s get into it. When people hear the word Australia, they have certain stereotypes in their mind.
What is true about the stereotypes of Australia and what are some of the ones that you particularly enjoy?
Pamela: I guess the traditional stereotype, Jo, is the Aussie ocker. I guess that comes a little bit from the whole Paul Hogan, ‘Throw a shrimp on the barbie,’ type stereotype.
Quite a few years ago now, we were traveling in the States. And it was around the time that Steve Irwin…I don’t know if Steve Irwin was popular in the U.K., but he was really big in the States, the Wildlife Warrior. And he used to say ‘crikey’ all the time.
I remember standing in an ice cream parlor waiting to order some ice cream, some takeaway or whatever in L.A. and people heard our accent and everybody in the shop wanted us to just say ‘crikey’ so we sounded like Steve Irwin. And I think he was part of that whole stereotype the Outback Aussie, finding the wildlife type thing, a bit Crocodile Dundee-ish. So I guess there’s some truth to that stereotype like there is in all stereotypes.
And the other thing, I guess, maybe for the U.K. people, there’s the Neighbors TV show and suburban family life and things like that. And then of course, at the other end, you actually do get asked sometimes when you’re traveling overseas, do you have kangaroos in your backyard? Do you have koalas? Things like that.
I actually live on a property and we sometimes do have kangaroos in our backyard. But if you’re in just a normal suburban part of the world, and lots of Australians live in cities, they tend to cling around the edges, you rarely see a koala or a kangaroo or anything like that.
And of course, then there’s the whole venomous animal thing as well. People from overseas they’re often very scared about coming to Australia. I’ve met tourists who say, ‘The spiders, and the snakes, and the sharks are everywhere.’ And of course, they’re here, but not to that extent where you can’t walk out your door without fear of being bitten or attacked. Although I will say I did have a funnel-web spider in my kitchen a few weeks ago. So that wasn’t very pleasant.
Joanna: You obviously write about women in Australia. And you’ve talked there about several stereotypes of the white Australian male with the hat on with the corks, and like you say, the shrimp on the barbie. But what about the women of Australia? Because I think that there are some ideas about that as well. What do you think? What about the women of Australia?
Pamela: That’s really interesting, actually. Because when I was thinking about this question earlier today, it was more that male stereotype that came to mind for me, that image of the Outback Aussie.
In terms of women, you know, there is also that idea of the women on the land. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that as well. There are a lot of women who work on the land, you probably don’t hear as much about them as you tend to do the men. But there’s a lot of Aussie women farmers out there as well.
I think a lot of the impression that people have if they haven’t been to Australia is of this Outback place where, of course, many, many thousands, millions of Australians live in the cities. And some people have never been to the Outback, or never even experienced it. So, yeah, that’s an interesting question about women in terms of stereotype. What do you think of when you think of an Australian woman stereotype?
Joanna: I was thinking of Nicole Kidman in the film Australia, which again, still is the Outback, but I think it’s the independence. I remember when I first came to Australia in the year 2000. I arrived in Perth and went up the West Coast up to Darwin through, again, the Outback, but I met a lot of Australian women and made friends and I was there a while, I lived in Australia for five years in the end.
But I think that Australian women are independent and strong people and so that is obviously not a bad stereotype. It is definitely a personality of the country, I think. And I think Australian women will often speak their mind much more than British women might.
For example, I remember going, ‘Wow, okay.’ I think you’re just saying what you think, whereas British people, for example, we might say one thing, but we mean something completely different, whereas I feel that’s less so in Australia.
Pamela: I don’t think we’re as willing, or not willing, but I don’t think we necessarily always stick to the niceties. I think Australian women do tend to be quite outspoken, a lot of Australian women, it’s a generalization, of course, and definitely speak their mind. Polite rules aren’t necessarily always adhered to.
Joanna: What do you think might surprise people about Australia and its people in a positive way?
Pamela: Linking back to that idea of the Outback and that image that Australia has, and I guess that image too has been promoted by our tourism authorities and things because there is a fantastic Outback to see in Australia and all that sort of thing.
I think what a lot of people overseas probably wouldn’t realize maybe about Australia is it’s actually a really multicultural place, we have people here from all over the world. And also, of course, our indigenous culture, our First Nations Peoples culture, which is thankfully being recognized a lot more now, and being promoted and seen as something that’s valuable finally, which it’s taken a long time for that to happen.
But certainly, in terms of the different cultures and waves of migration that has happened, we’ve got people from all over Europe, from the U.K., of course, but also, Asia, and the range of restaurants and different types of foods and things that you can get in Australia even often in really small country towns you can go to a little town and find a fantastic Thai restaurant. There’s many places in big cities like Sydney where you just have the biggest range of restaurants and cafes and things available.
And of course, all that flows into things like art galleries, and literature, and all those different aspects of culture that makes it just a really vibrant, lively, diverse sort of place to be. You can go to the suburbs, where you can walk down the street and everything’s like from the Vietnamese culture, there’s areas where Chinatown, of course, every city has a Chinatown, but there are loads of different cultures.
So with that comes things like festivals with different cultural groups, and there’s religious festivals. Just south of Sydney and there’s a fantastic Hindu temple just not far from where we live. So I think that may surprise some people who wouldn’t have that impression of Australia looking at it from afar.
And also I think, of course, the natural environment, it might not be a surprise, but the variety of different things that you can see in Australia. We have a lot of beautiful coastal areas, of course, and we do have the red interior, the real Outback around the Uluru and Kata Tjuta and all those sorts of wonderful places.
In between that there are fantastic national parks, there are wineries, there’s the high country down in the snowy mountains, there are the tropical areas up in Queensland. So it’s really diverse in terms of landscape, and there’s pretty much any type of landscape that you can think of within the boundaries, I guess, of Australia. So, there’s always something to do if you love the outdoors.
And as I mentioned, the indigenous culture. I think the latest dating they’re saying goes back something like over 60,000 years or possibly more. And there are places where you can go and see rock paintings and cultural artifacts and things from those cultures and those people and that are definitely a really important part of our overall culture.
We don’t have the old buildings, perhaps, like in the U.K. and Europe, but we certainly have a very ancient culture when you take into account those indigenous people.
Joanna: I think you’re right. And it is a very, very big country and I think it can be almost hard to realize that when you’re booking a trip because you think, ‘Oh, there’s only a couple of really massive cities.’ Like Sydney and Melbourne, and then Perth, and Brisbane. But in many countries, well, in countries the size of Australia, of which there are very few, there are many more places that you would go in terms of cities. But yes, it’s a very big country.
You mentioned Asian cuisine, for example, because in the U.K., when we say Asia, we mostly mean India. So when I arrived in Australia, and people would refer to Asian people, in my mind, they were referring to Indian people, but actually, in Australia, Asian generally refers to more Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, that different side of Asia.
So I think that’s really interesting, too, because again, and I’d never eaten the amount of Asian food before I lived in Australia because obviously, we have it here in the U.K. But at the time, in the year 2000 when I came, we didn’t even have sushi available on the high street, for example. Whereas I came to Australia, I think I ate sushi for the first time in Australia. It’s interesting how the Asian cultures are so embedded, which is interesting.
Several of your books are set in rural Australia, and you mentioned that and it can be a harsh life.
What are some of the attractions of those rural areas, in particular, and also some of the dangers?
Pamela: In many ways, there are some difficulties with living in rural areas. And of course, it depends on what type of rural area you’re in. A lot of farmland city areas that I first set my original books around are a few hours south from here, from where I live. And it’s more coastal.
It’s got beautiful rolling green paddies with cows and horses, you’re not far from the beach, there are national parks, that sort of thing. So it’s not too taxing if you’re living there. But of course, living on the land has become increasingly difficult over the last decade. Australia has always experienced drought, but in the last probably 10 or 15 years, the drought seasons have become longer and harsher. And it’s not quite as bad now, of course, as it was a few years ago.
My fourth book, The Crossroads, was set in Outback Queensland, and I’ve never actually been to the Outback at that point. And I went there to research it, and it was right in the middle of the drought. So it really opened my eyes to the difficulties that farmers face. There were these massive, massive properties that you could drive for hours and you would still be on the same property, these very big land holdings in Central Queensland. Red dirt, the whole Outback thing. But the time that I was there, which was around 2015, I think, the drought was quite at its peak and farmers had to sell off many of their animals.
The animals that were there, a lot of them were very thin because the farmers were really trying to keep them alive by hand feeding them, there was literally no grass at all. Water was scarce. So all those sorts of things with people who are making a living from farming, trying to keep their animals alive and to keep roofs over their head.
And then, of course, there were all the associated mental health issues around if you can’t keep your business running, if you’re a farmer, and you can’t feed your family, there were a lot of mental health issues, and there still are, of course, for people living on the land.
Many of those properties, because of the drought, also we’re being overrun by kangaroos, they were there in the thousands, they were eating any kinds of grass that were left. So in those sorts of places when the drought was at its peak, I guess there were some really harsh realities.
And then, of course, the effects that all that has on the local town too, people moving away when they can’t make a living there. So businesses closed down and there are not enough people to staff schools and hospitals and things like that. So it can be really quite harsh.
But if you talk to people who’ve lived on the land for generations, they’re just such hardy, strong people.
And for many of them, they’ve seen this happen before in their families, they’ve been through many droughts, and they know that it will come good again, although with global warming and everything, of course, the things are a little bit different.
So there can be those harsh realities for people living on those really big land holdings, and then of course, to a lesser extent, I guess, for other farmers. And then you’ve got the whole small town thing, where you do have the advantage of knowing everyone in the community, and that can be really great and it can be really supportive, but then you’ve got the thing where everybody knows your business, too.
You can’t really get away with doing anything and not being found out. I guess like everything, every type of lifestyle, there’s pluses and minuses with living in the country and in rural areas.
Joanna: When I traveled, I spent a lot more time traveling through Australia. And some of the most memorable occasions were being out in the Outback and out in the desert and out in these very difficult, raw situations and seeing how dangerous it would be. And there’s actually Jane Harper’s book, The Dry, it goes into that drought situation as well, which I wanted to mention there.
You said you hadn’t actually been out to the Outback until you researched that book. And it can be really hard to see your own country with the eyes of an outsider.
What are some of the other places that have inspired your fiction, in particular, where you had to take that outsider view?
Pamela: I didn’t grow up in a rural area. I’ve always loved traveling to country areas, and as a child, our family used to travel down the South Coast. And that place has a really special place in my heart.
So we ended up, my husband and I, buying a holiday house there. And that’s where I did set some of those earlier books. But it’s interesting, when you do go to somewhere like that and you’re researching, and you do see it as an outsider, and I guess you watch the way people relate with each other. Especially when you come from a more urban background, you can really see the difference, particularly in community relationships. I think that’s something that really struck me as an outsider going into communities with the close-knit feeling.
You’ve got the CWA, the Country Women’s Association, usually in every town, and they’ll have little market days or scone days, or things like that. Some of those traditions, I think, are dying out now, but they definitely still exist.
So it has been interesting, coming from more of an urban background, and seeing some of those differences. And I wrote a book a few years ago, which was set more out west, not Outback West, but probably about five hours from Sydney. So over the Blue Mountains.
One of the things that I really noticed is the isolation, and as you mentioned, Jo, the distance, the long distances that people have to travel. For example, if you live five or eight hours away from Sydney and you’re in a fairly small town, sometimes the medical facilities aren’t great. It might be okay for just ordinary day-to-day health things, but if you have some sort of medical emergency, getting to a big enough hospital can be difficult, you might have to be airlifted if there’s a real emergency, or certainly, the travel to get to somewhere like that can be quite extensive.
My brother used to live in a place called Broken Hill, which was about 10 hours west of Sydney, or even more. And his kids all played various school sports, netball and things. And the distance that they have to travel to actually compete in different sports was amazing. They had traveled for hours and hours just to play a game of netball or something. So there’s a lot of things like that that you do notice when you go to country places if you haven’t been brought up there. And they’re all the things that I love to tap into when I’m writing about those places, too. As well as the beautiful scenery and all the nicer sides of it as well.
Joanna: I think I was somewhere in Queensland, and someone was like, ‘Oh, come to this party.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay.’ And they’re like, ‘We have to drive 12 hours. It’s not far.’ I remember it was the Bachelor & Spinsters Ball or something in some town in the Outback, where I actually think there was a reality TV show they did on that eventually marrying the bachelor in the Outback type of thing.
I remember it just going ‘I don’t think I want to drive that far to just go to a party.’ But it was like that was completely normal to drive for hours and hours just to go do something.
Pamela: It was certainly as if you lived in any sort of country location, and I guess if you want to do anything social, you have to be willing to travel.
I remember going to one of those B&S Balls actually in Victoria many years ago, and it was huge. There were so many people there and people came, you know, as you say, from miles and miles from all around in every direction. A good time was had by all but certainly, the distance can be quite a challenge.
Joanna: Back in the days when people met without apps, there wasn’t the internet dating that there is nowadays, but back in the day when I was backpacking around Australia.
Let’s get into the more cultural side in terms of the more urban setting. You live in Sydney. And of course, when people say Sydney, everyone knows the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge because they’re on the TV all the time and in movies and stuff.
What are some of the other places that you love recommending in Sydney in particular?
Pamela: I live about 15 minutes by train from the center of Sydney, I moved further south out of Sydney itself a few years ago. You mentioned the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, Jo, and every time I do go into the city, which isn’t really that often considering how close I am to it, the harbor is absolutely amazing. So that’s definitely a jewel in the crown.
It’s beautiful on a lovely sunny day to hop off the train and just walk around the harbor. But there are loads of places that have sprung up, I guess, as people who’ve moved closer and to live towards the city. The center of Sydney itself…some people are living now in the center of Sydney, but they tend to live slightly out.
There are some suburbs that have been gentrified, if you like, so like Surrey Hills, Paddington, certainly. I mentioned before the Vietnamese restaurants. So there are lots of places. Newtown is a fabulous place to go for great cafes, and quirky shops, and some interesting people watching, great bookstores. So there are lots of nice little suburbs not very far from Sydney.
Then of course, if you travel probably only 15 minutes out of the city center, you can be at Bondi and Coogee beaches. And they’ve actually created a coastal walk, and I can’t tell you exactly how far it runs. But they’ve linked up a lot of the coastal walks that go along those beaches. You’ve obviously got to get the ferry across Manly, but there are walks that go all up and down the coast now.
Even down where I live in the Illawarra, there’s a great walk and a cycling track. So there are lots of really great things like that that you can do. And of course, the Blue Mountains isn’t very far away, it’s only a couple of hours out of Sydney. And that’s a really lovely place with beautiful little places, and it does snow there. We don’t get the snow that you guys get in the U.K., but I was up in the Blue Mountains last year on a weekend away, and we got some snow, which was very exciting.
And then, of course, we do have the high country, the Snowy Mountains, which again, doesn’t get a huge amount of snow, but enough that you can actually go down and do some skiing. So that’s always nice.
And we have some great wineries not very far out of Sydney as well. There’s the Hunter Valley Wineries, which are probably a couple of hours northwest, and then out west, there’s some really lovely wineries and foodie-type options, which have sprung up over the last few years. But there’s plenty to do.
Joanna: I remember the walk to Manly along the coast there. And, I also think it’s important because a lot of people listening might be American and think that you need to drive everywhere. So you definitely need to drive a lot of places in Australia.
But if you’re staying in downtown Sydney, there are ferries, trains, buses, you can walk places. I certainly never had a car when doing a trip just within Sydney or, say, Melbourne, for example.
There’s plenty of public transport, isn’t there? I think that’s really important. You don’t want to be driving everywhere.
Pamela: No, and in fact, Jo, over the last few years, they’re trying to deter people from taking cars into the city itself. So they have established a really good light rail system. I guess like a tram, like the trams in Melbourne.
You can get a tram now or a light rail all the way up to Bondi. And you can very easily travel, be in Sydney without having to get a car, and the suburban train system is pretty good and the country trains are great. So you can go south-north-west on the trains and the bus system is pretty good. You definitely don’t need to have your own transport or to go to the extent of hiring a car. There are plenty of options with public transport for sure.
Joanna: I lived in Sydney for, I think, four, five months during the Olympics in 2000. And I never had a car and I got around fine, even back then. I remember getting the train to the Blue Mountains and doing some hiking. And I had a great time. It was definitely a memorable occasion. I even saw the beach volleyball on Bondi. It was a great time, that Olympics.
Pamela: It was pretty wild back then. I was watching something because they’re talking now about Brisbane getting the Olympics in I think it’s 2032. It’s all quite low-key. But I remember when the announcement was made that Sydney was going to host the Olympics, and it was just party central from the minute that it was announced.
And then certainly, while the Olympics were on, it was just such a great vibe here. It’s hard to believe that that was like over 20 years ago. But yeah, it was a great time. And things have certainly changed a bit now, I think. But there’s still, of course, plenty to do.
Joanna: It’s March 2021 but the pandemic still goes on. And Australia closed its borders in the pandemic and making it almost impossible to enter or leave the country. As far as I understand it, you have to get permission from the government if you want to leave, and they have made it very difficult to come in. So as someone who’s interested in travel, has it made you think about travel in a different way?
Has the pandemic changed your mindset around local travel?
Pamela: It definitely has, Jo. Had there been no COVID, we would have been skiing in Canada last month, for instance, that was our planned trip, we’ve been planning that for a couple of years. We like to go overseas skiing every couple of years. But, of course, that went out the window. We’ve been very lucky. The restrictions were quite severe. But I think it worked in our favor in that the numbers have been very low, comparably to other places in the world. So everyone’s handled it quite well, I think.
I have had friends who have had to come in from overseas for family reasons and things like that, friends who are living in the Middle East, for instance, and having to come in and then spend two weeks in quarantine, of course, when they got here, had the time here, had another two weeks in quarantine when they went back. So all that sort of thing was going on.
Borders have been closed between states, they’ve been now opening up, but even traveling into state wasn’t possible. And of course, for some of the time during COVID, you couldn’t even leave home.
So it certainly does make you think about other travel options. And like you, having lived in Australia, Jo, and traveling the way that you did when you were here, you’ve probably seen more of Australia than I have. I have seen a fair bit of it, but I haven’t, for instance, been to Uluru or really far North Queensland and things like that, although I have been to a couple of the islands.
It certainly does make you think about what’s closer to home. We’ve done a couple of short trips since things have eased in terms of restrictions, been up north and down south a little bit. But the local tourism industry is actually starting to really boom because people who would normally be traveling overseas, particularly over that Christmas, January period when we have that long holiday time.
I know a lot of those sort of places, not too far out of Sydney, actually were booming, which was really good for them because this time last year, of course, they were just getting over quite devastating bushfires. So it has been good in a way for local tourism and it definitely does make you think about where you can go that’s not involving getting on a plane.
Joanna: Although again, in Australia, you often do have to get on a plane to travel interstate, as you say. What is it, eight hours flight to Perth, I think from Sydney, is that right?
Pamela: I think it’s down to five now. It’s about five or six.
Joanna: It’s still a long way. I certainly feel like I’ve taken travel for granted. Before this, obviously, being aware of the ecological impacts, but still wanting to travel responsibly. And now I feel even more that I value it more than I did before.
I’m not going to be blase about, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll get there someday.’ I feel like I’m definitely going to go places. Are there things that you feel you might have taken for granted and that you’re going to go do once things change again?
Pamela: For sure. We’ve always been big travelers. I lived over in London and the U.K. for a couple of years when I was younger. And then I think my husband and I both had the travel bug from that time, and we traveled quite extensively with our children as they were growing up.
Even as they’re into adulthood, we’ve been away with them. But it does make you really think about the fact that we have taken that for granted, that we’ve been able to jump on flights to go to the other side of the world relatively cheaply, really, when you think about some of the fares and things that you could get.
So, it does really make you think about it and think of, maybe we do have limited travel options in the future. Some of the places that I haven’t been before maybe prioritizing near in case something like this does happen again and we can’t travel for whatever reason.
Joanna: Absolutely. It is an interesting time and really thinking about those things.
Apart from your own books, what are a few books that you would recommend about or set in Australia?
Pamela: This was a great question, Jo. You really got me thinking. I’ve always loved the books of Tim Winton, he writes beautiful Australian setting. And there are lots of those around by Tim Winton, like Breath. You mentioned The Dry, which is a great crime novel, Jane Harper. She’s got a few other books out as well that are setting generally rural Australia.
Candice Fox has some great crime books set in a lot of different locations, and I think her Redemption Point series, I’m not sure if that was set up in Queensland, but some of her books are set up in Northern Queensland.
If you’re up to rural romance, that’s a really big thing in Australia. And we have lots of great rural romance writers who’ve set their books in, sort of, small-town Australia, Penelope Janu, Karly Lane.
There’s actually a great website called australianfiction…I think it’s australianfictionauthors.com. That’s a really great place to go and find some of those books where you might have a really lovely rural setting, and then you’ve got things going on between people in the community. All sorts of different books can be found there.
There’s lots of great Australian fiction out and coming out all the time. For the podcast, I keep getting sent books from publishers, and I just can’t keep up with the reading, it’s been amazing.
Joanna: We should say your podcast, ‘Writes4Women,’ as you say, you talk to other writers. And it’s funny because you mentioned Australian romance. And of course, The Thorn Birds has to be the…talking of stereotypes, it has to be the stereotypical Australian romance epic.
I remember watching that miniseries, I guess, in my early teens, I think at the time. It has a lot of truth in it, I think, around rural Australia. Do you think that Australian authors, romance authors in particular, feel a hangover from The Thorn Birds? Does it still rear-up?
Pamela: You hear about The Thorn Birds every now and then. But no, I think it’s changed a fair bit. I think that’s obviously part of the legacy, of that tradition of Australian rural fiction writing, but yeah, I think there’s a very varied whole range now of different types of stories set in the country. Some of the romances are really full-on romances, others are romantic suspense. That’s quite a popular genre to have a setting here.
A couple other books that I’ll mention, Jo, a fabulous book called The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, for anybody that really wants to read books with a fantastic Australian setting, that’s set partly on a wildflower plant farm and also has some indigenous storyline happening in it.
And another one, All Our Shimmering Skies, which is a recent one set up in Darwin, just in and around Darwin after World War II, by Trent Dalton. So, there are two recent books that are great for Australian setting and Australian story.
Joanna: Fantastic. Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Pamela. That was great.
Pamela: Thanks, Jo. It’s been lovely chatting.