In the first of our new Postscript series, in which writers tell the story behind their book, Josephine Wilson explains how her experiences of engineering made it become a major part of her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, Extinctions.

A Bridge of Sorts

 
I do not generally subscribe to the idea that fiction can be explained by plumbing a writer’s biography, or their intentions. However, there is no denying that the circumstances of my life had a fundamental bearing on the concerns (and the form) of Extinctions.
 
Both my parents died during the writing of the book.  My father was an engineer, as are two of my brothers. I grew up with hard hats in the lounge room and discussions about bridges and pile driving around the dining table.  In my 20s I lived in New York, and the experience fuelled my passion for the cityscape and for understanding late 19th and 20th century engineering as a cultural determinant in the modern era.  Who cannot marvel at a skyscraper, or mourn the flooding of a valley by a dam?  I have a long interest in writing about art and design and have tutored in these areas. 
 
In 2012 my husband took leave and we travelled to Srinagar and Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, to live for a few months. My husband volunteered in a school, the Druk Padma White Lotus School, outside Leh. Our children were supposed to attend school, and I was going to write my novel. In the end my kids stayed home a lot, and I spent a great deal of time with our lovely host family hand washing our clothes in icy mountain water.  In the evening we got a few hours of rationed electricity, and we all gathered in the lounge room to eat momos and watch Hindi soaps. 
 
The school is much associated with the firm Ove Arup. I had grown up with the names of great engineering firms, uttered like distant gods; my father’s parents were born in England and lived in India and Pakistan, where my grandfather had some kind of engineering works. Dad was born in Pakistan, studied engineering at Imperial College London, and worked for Gammon in Pakistan. My Australian mother met my dad in Karachi, where she was employed as an air hostess for the newly-formed Pakistan International Airways (PIA). My mother had been recruited from the Australian airline TAA to move to Pakistan and train women for the new national airline, formed after partition. Following the birth of my oldest brother, they moved to England. My father worked on the infamous Calder Hall, Sellafield, the first British nuclear power station, and after that Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (Paddy’s Wigwam).  My brothers and I started school in Liverpool.  My relatives in Rockhampton (the small Queensland town my mother came from) tell me that we all spoke a lyrical Scouse when we turned up from England en route to Port Hedland, in Western Australia, where my dad was sent ahead to work on the container jetties for the iron ore boom in Western Australia.
 
Engineering and illness has shaped our family’s narrative; we came to Australia for my dad’s work, believing we were here for only a short time.  When my father had a brain tumour in his early 40s it left him with a hemiplegia and a tendency to fall, which robbed him of beloved career (on site!) and sent him sideways into a desk job.  We stayed in Perth and became Australian.
 
In my research I came across the biography of Sir Peter Rice, of Ove Arup, who worked as the engineer on the Utzon’s Sydney Opera House and many other famous projects, including the Pompidou Centre and La Villette and the glass pyramid at the Louvre. Unlike many engineers, Rice was able to straddle both design and engineering. I was fascinated by the idea of a bridge (rather than a moat or a wall) between these two disciplines, which are so often opposed. Extinctions draws upon that purported binary between doing and thinking, between functionality and aesthetics, explored most fully through Frederick’s favourite chair, the Wassily Chair, Marcel Breuer’s B3, and its fate in the book. 
 
What use is art? What good are words and ideas? In Extinctions, Frederick Lothian, retired Professor of Engineering, expresses his own frustration at not ‘getting’ the metaphorical and poetic realms of life.  I am a writer, and while building bridges might be some people’s thing, sentences are mine - winning the Miles Franklin Award has sealed my fate. And perhaps they are not so different after all; fiction is a bridge that connects readers to characters, places and ideas beyond their immediate scope. Words might be softer, more pliable, more ambiguous than reinforced steel, concrete and brick, but they can still cause a body to flinch in pain, and they can still make us cry.

Buy your copy of Extinctions with 10% off + free UK shipping