The joy of handcrafting a cricket bat, and the equal pleasure from using it, are central themes of INGA SIMPSON‘s new novel, Willowman, as she tells JENNIFER SOMERVILLE
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Inga Simpson that the topic of her latest book is cricket.
She confesses to loving cricket ever since she was a child. She’s aware that a lot of female writers love it too, and she wanted to explain why it is so interesting.
‘It’s a lot like life, really,’ she claims.
Her new novel, Willowman, is centred on cricket, telling the story of a traditional batmaker, as well as the rise through the ranks of a young promising cricketer, for whom the batmaker crafts a wonderful bat.
Simpson had the idea for this book more than 10 years ago. She was researching the properties of willow, always with a strong interest in the game of cricket.
‘I love watching cricket, listening to it, reading books about cricket, as well as reading and listening to commentary,’ she said. ‘This novel took about two or three years of research, reading cricket books and spending time with a batmaker, even making my own bat.
‘That was quite arduous as the timber is quite hard to work with.’
But Simpson has never played cricket, and with no siblings growing up, there was not even a backyard game.
Fittingly, the local launch of Willowman near her home on the South Coast of NSW featured a game of social cricket, with Simpson and two others as commentators.
Her batmaker character, Allan Reader, grandson of a highly respected UK batmaker, also has a back story in the novel as a talented oboist.
That happened by accident, according to Simpson, as although she wanted the character to be a musician, she had not decided what instrument to utilise.
‘I’m not musical at all, but I was talking to an oboist friend who was explaining how to shape the reed used when playing. It seemed to me that oboe playing is based in nature, with both the instrument and the reed coming from timber.
‘Then when I did further research, there were lots of parallels between shaping a cricket bat and shaping reeds for wind instruments.’
When telling the stories of Allan Reader the batmaker (aka podshaver, to use the traditional term), the cricketer Todd Harrow, and his cricket-playing sister Olivia Harrow, Simpson claims she almost needed another 400 pages even when she had finished the book.
When she first started thinking about writing this novel, Simpson had been inspired by the career of Phillip Hughes. A precocious talent, from whom Australian cricket expected big things, he died after being struck by a bouncer ball a week before his 26th birthday. So Simpson became interested in the stories of success and failure of top cricketers, some of whom were not able to fulfil their potential for varied reasons.
Her novel tells the story of Todd Harrow, from the Under 15s at the Landsborough oval on the Sunshine Coast, all the way to wearing the baggy green cap for Australia.
It’s a similar story for his sister, Liv, and Simpson’s depiction of their cricket-loving, farming family based in that part of southern Queensland is told authentically and with consummate affection.
While Simpson found it a tough choice to base her novel on men’s or women’s cricket, she went with men’s cricket as the central theme, taking its fans along with her as she then introduced representative level women’s cricket later in the book.
‘Women’s cricket has come on so much, and by the time I finished the book, I loved Liv, and felt like I really knew what I was doing,’ she said.
‘The introduction of T20 cricket allowed women’s cricket to flourish.’
Simpson has set Willowman around the time T20 emerged at the international level, between 2006 and 2009. To serve the story, she admits to taking many liberties with recent cricket history, including the timing of the Sheffield Shield, international series and the make-up of contemporary teams.
But larger cricket history, and the spirit of the game, remains intact, she says in her introduction to the novel.
The characters with which she has populated the cricket teams, from representative schoolboy teams to international Test teams, are mainly composites. For Todd Harrow, she started with Phil Hughes, mixed with Steve Smith and even Will Pucovski, who has been concussed multiple times, but at no time was she going to kill off her main character, despite similar injuries.
‘I wanted to show the hard work involved in being an athlete at that elite level. In my book, Todd Harrow barely gets there at school, and what does someone like him have to fall back on when they retire from cricket at a relatively young age?’ she said.
‘There’s a huge investment of time and effort from parents and partners. Cricketers work incredibly hard at fitness It’s a big investment from the players, even when they reach the peak of their careers, and when they lose that career.
‘Of course cricket is a changed game with concussion rules, but I wanted to play on people’s knowledge of what has happened.
‘A cricketer’s life is like real life. For every writer like me who succeeds, there are hundreds who are not published.
‘There is so much pressure on sports stars, and the public will turn on them if they are seen to make a mistake, either on the field or in their private life.
Traditional batmakers are still to be found, according to Simpson, with many players at the elite level preferring to have a handmade bat. As a keen watcher of cricket, she noted that one of Australia’s top players was using a handmade Bradbury bat during a recent one-day series.
Just as people can choose to buy their fruit and vegetables at farmers’ markets, rather than a supermarket, she considers cricket players can still choose traditional craftsmen to supply their bats rather than from corporate factories.
The white willows at the centre of the book, both in the UK and in Australia, follow the themes about trees set by Simpson in her earlier novels such as Mr Wigg, Nest, Where The Trees Were, Understory, and The Book of Australian Trees (for children). The outlier, as she describes it, is The Last Woman in the World, a dystopian thriller.
That tree theme is how Simpson says she sees the world.
‘It tends to be the centre of my existence,’ she said. ‘I grew up knowing a lot about trees and timber as my father was a woodworker as well as a farmer.’
An important part of her novel concerns an outbreak of rust in the white willows of the UK, decimating the plantations, but young willow grown in Australia is shipped over to save the day.
‘I made that up, but rust happens in other species and it’s conceivable that it could happen in willow. As soon as I realised that just one species of trees supplies the timber for all cricket bats, I could have some fun with it,’ she said.
‘I have a beekeeper cousin who was sending stock to the USA after the outbreak of bee disease there, so I knew the logistics of airfreighting organic material.’
Simpson believes in leaving space for readers to imagine details, so when she has Olivia Harrow about to wed one of the Australian men’s team, readers know such a marriage could work, as Mitchell Starc (Australian men’s team) is married to Alyssa Healy (Australian women’s team), with each supportive of the other.
This author/self-confessed cricket tragic has been delighted to see the support shown by the men’s team members to their female counterparts and resolved to show that in her book.
And maintaining her work-life balance, when planning the publicity tour to promote Willowman, Simpson had to work around the Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup, played around Australia in October and November, as she knew she would be watching avidly and was determined not to miss much.
What’s next? In a change of pace, Simpson has already started research on another thriller. She loves post-apocalyptic literature, and as most of her work concerns the environment, she is looking forward to exploring consequences of human action, as well as inaction.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of cricket to watch, to listen to and to read about.
Inga Simpson is the author of a number of books including The Last Woman in the World and Mr Wigg. Read more reviews for her books here.
Follow Inga Simpson on Instagram here.