Debra Jopson’s eyes light up when talking about her first book, Oliver of the Levant. A former Fairfax journalist, she won the Walkley Award for Freelance Journalism in 2014 having dedicated her life to investigative features and news stories, working in Hong Kong, Melbourne and Sydney.
The journalist-turned-novelist now lives in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The rich earthen colours of the Aboriginal paintings on the walls in her house create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. There are also paintings by Debra’s father – white roofs overlooking the sea in Greece, a peaceful bay landscape at night, the moon reflected in the sea. And it’s around such influences that she decided to write Oliver of the Levant.
After five years and many drafts, Debra’s first novel takes place in 1969, between Bondi and Beirut, at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war. It tells of a family and their life during this time and how, choosing the wrong influences, a teenage boy is going to commit an act from which there is no going back.
The author has always been interested in children who get radicalised and fascinated by what happens to people, why they makes these decisions to do something off the planet.
She said Oliver had to become one of the war machine’s kids. “I have read a lot about those kids and they are often vulnerable for various reasons; they may even come from a really good loving family, but something happened to them. They’ve been manipulated by an older person,” Debra says.
After much research, she discovered how many men and boys can have a fascination with explosives and risk-taking.
Debra Jopson lived in Beirut, Lebanon, for two years when she was 16. Tensions in the country signalled civil war. “I can still remember going to school and wondering if the cars that I was walking past were going to explode.” Although she and her family never felt threatened, her mother and stepfather stayed until they had no choice but to leave the country.
Debra thought a lot about parents’ responsibilities concerning their children’s enrolment in life’s black side. “Kids need attention from their parents.” She says that, in a way, Oliver can be seen as sad and pathetic but he got into trouble through not having enough life experience.
Despite the sad reality of the true stories that inspired her book, she has created an atmosphere that is peaceable and comforting. Debra lays down her voice, choosing words with care.
She says that in the book, parents are too focused on their own lives, caught up with themselves and everything around them.
Debra gave importance to Babette, Oliver’s stepmother. “Some people, when they travel, are so ignorant of the places they are going to and they don’t really see what’s going on. And she’s a bit like that. As I wrote her, she became more generous and more open to what was going. And she had her own problems in life, that I kind of discovered.”
There are no limits to inspiration. One day, Debra saw her dog playing with a lizard and it became a scene in the book. She went upstairs to her office to write it down.
“Would you like to see where I work?” She asked.
The experience of living in a foreign country and seeing completely different worlds led Debra to start thinking about the different types of people living in Australia. “I found living in Beirut very exciting and stimulating.”
Debra hasn’t been to Lebanon for 15 years because her friends kept saying her that it will break her heart. But she had pictures of her times in Beirut ; leaning on an old car, dressed in the style of the 70s, with long brown hair, life seemed naïve and happy. She has books about this period, her memories. When she closes her eyes, she can see her life 40 years ago.
Among her souvenirs, she has a picture of her and her mother at a cocktail party. Both are well dressed, smiling, raising their glasses ; the scene seems far from the Lebanon conflict.
“I went back in my head, writing fiction. That place, in that time, are in my mind. For me it was real and I thought I was recreating something, building the world of a novel,” she says.
“Before I wrote the book, I wanted to write it as a journalist but it’s more than a story, in a way. It was about teenage boys who get caught up in political conflict all over the world.”
Debra hopes the readers will see inside the characters’ worlds and share their emotions. And also some laughs, “because I did put some jokes in there!”.
“I hope at the end they’re thinking of what happens to kids like Oliver, and that they will consider what war does to people and how refugees are created.”
Debra Jopson talked about the complicated business of existing between two worlds and the relationship between héritage, family and home in the session, Going Home : Belonging, Family and Food, with writers Beth Yahp and Adam Aitken yesterday in the Philharmonia Studio yesterday.