Mary-Lou Stephens says writing a novel about the heartbreaking demise of the Tasmanian apple industry really tapped into her core – no pun intended. Her debut novel, The Last of the Apple Blossom is set in the Huon Valley and tells a story so close to her heart, she finds it difficult to discuss it without crying.
Raised in Tasmania, the Sunshine Coast author and former ABC radio presenter says the idea for the book came out of nowhere back in 2017 and haunted her until she gave in and wrote it.
“It was just really weird; one of these bolt-from-the-blue things that suddenly hit me,” she says. “I thought, are you kidding me? Where has this come from? It was really quite strange. To be honest, the idea of it terrified me because I thought, it will be a really big book with a lot of sadness and trauma. I just went, I don’t want to write this book. I thought, it’s too big, it’s too sad, I know nothing about growing apples, even though I grew up in Tasmania.
The idea came the day she interviewed author Monica McInerney. During the interview, they discussed grief and how it informed Ms McInerney’s writing. That afternoon, the premise of The Last of the Apple Blossom revealed itself and Ms McInerney insisted Ms Stephens write the book.
“In a wonderful turn of events, Monica became my mentor through the Australian Society of Authors mentorship program, and guided me through the final drafts before I submitted to publishers,” Ms Stephens says. “Monica was brilliant, but tough. She really put me through my paces, but she was also warm, kind and generous.”
Sunny Coasters will know Ms Stephens as a local media identity and author of the memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation. This is the fourth novel she has written, but the first to be published, and it has taken her more than a decade to find her perfect genre in historical fiction.
“The thing with historical fiction is you do a stack of research. I did a lot of online and book research, reading of academic documents, PhD theses, all that kind of stuff. But nothing can really beat being on the ground, seeing the lay of the land. Going to Tasmania in November 2018 and talking to the old orchardists was just astounding.”
Apples were an important crop in Tasmania from early colonial settlement and when Britain joined the European Common Market in the early 1970s, essentially cutting off trade, the industry collapsed. The government implemented the Tree Pull Scheme and between 1972 and 1975, many Huon Valley farmers took advantage of this. Over the course of a decade, 700 orchardists left the industry.
“Many were tending orchards that had been in their families for generations,” Ms Stephens says. “For all that love and hard work to be bulldozed into the ground when the industry collapsed would have been almost impossible to bear. A line I heard in one of the orchidist’s oral histories haunted me through the writing of the book: ‘I worked my entire life for nothing’.
“I don’t believe it was for nothing. Their stories and their lives are important. The orchardists created beauty and purpose. Tasmania was the Apple Isle because of them – an enormous achievement. It might not have lasted, but everything is ephemeral in the end. To work and to create, to live a useful life, that is not nothing.”
While the book is set during the period from 1967 to 1977, it’s also a contemporary story that reflects the hardships faced by farmers today.
“Writing this book certainly gave me a whole new level of respect for our primary producers,” Ms Stephens says. “It highlighted just how tough it can be to make a living from the land. Often we buy our fruit and vegetables without ever thinking about the time and toil it’s taken for them to get to us. Every piece of fruit has a story, as does every vegetable.
“The Last of the Apple Blossom is about love on so many levels – romantic love, love of family and children, love of music and friends – and all the way through there is the love of the land, the trees, the way of life, the Huon Valley and of nature. It is a reminder of the changes Australia went through in the 1960s and ’70s and how we navigated those changes. Everything always changes but some things always hold true – love, respect, friendship, integrity. The Last of the Apple Blossom is a testament to our ability to navigate our way through hard times and come through them with the ingenuity and the support of those who love us.”
The Last of the Apple Blossom is out on July 28 and is published by HQ Fiction. Join Mary-Lou Stephens for her book launch at Annie’s Books on Peregian on Thursday, August 5 at 6pm. Free event. Ms Stephens will also appear at Outspoken Maleny on Wednesday, August 11 at 6pm.
Leigh Robshaw is a journalist who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years. Originally from Sydney, she has lived and worked in London, Tokyo and Latin America. She joined the team in 2012 and is MWP's deputy editor. Writing, reading and travel are her greatest passions.