Q&A with novelist, literary reviewer, interviewer and lawyer Suzanne Leal who is the Senior Judge of the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
How has your legal background influenced you as a novelist?
In my role as a tribunal member in refugee law, child protection and guardianship, I conduct hearings and write decisions. Each hearing is, in essence, the telling of a story and each decision the resolution of a problem: whether a person should be granted refugee status, or be allowed to work with children or be appointed to manage another person’s financial affairs. Such issues often find their way into my writing as I consider the dilemmas of the fictional characters I create.
Where did you find inspiration for your latest novel The Teacher’s Secret?
Set in a small coastal community, The Teacher’s Secret is the story of a much-loved teacher, Terry Pritchard, who is accused of inappropriate behaviour towards his young students. It is also the story of two newcomers to the community: media personality Rebecca Chuma, who has fled her African homeland, and teacher Nina Foreman, newly single with a young daughter to raise.
My work as a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal gave me the inspiration for Rebecca. I wanted to explore how a woman might manage life in a new country while waiting to find out whether she will be granted refugee status. My stint as a single mother gave me the inspiration for Nina, and the teachers who have been mentors to my children made me want to explore the dynamics of the schoolyard.
What have you learnt in your role as a judge of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards?
I’ve learnt to read critically and quickly, and to listen carefully to the views of my fellow judges. Each year, the quality of the entries reassures me that Australian literature is in very good health and that we are a country of talented writers.
Who have you most enjoyed interviewing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival?
So many to choose from! Tom Keneally charmed me with his rich laugh and relentless enthusiasm; Sofie Laguna was insightful and witty; Cold Chisel musician Don Walker was clever and cool and the Irish author Sebastian Barry captivated me (and the audience) with his dramatic book readings.
Is there a figure in Australian literature who most intrigues you?
In Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, the story of little Thady, the six-year-old who went missing from the streets, has always stayed with me. Even now, I find myself wondering what happened to him and mourning a loss that, through Ruth Park’s powerful writing, also became mine.
What do you love about libraries?
I love that libraries can be both a place of quiet and a buzz of excitement. I love the Mitchell Library for its grandeur, its beauty and its sense of history, and I love my local Malabar Library for its welcoming atmosphere and the commitment of its staff who patiently track down obscure titles for me.