Helen Hagemann’s debut novel, The Last Asbestos Town, Adelaide Books 2020, was launched by OOTA (an independent writers organisation based in the Fremantle Arts Centre) Writers and committee members Richard Regan and Leanne Searle at The Pavlich Room at the Fremantle Arts Centre, Finnerty St. Fremantle on 3 October 2020
Richard Regan on The Last Asbestos Town by Helen Hagemann
There are two main reasons for this.
The first, of course, is the novel itself, which is a beautifully crafted story set in the south-west of Western Australia in the near future, in a time when the government is forcibly eradicating the last of the nation’s asbestos structures. In common with all the best fiction, it grabs the reader’s interest from the very first sentence and holds it until the final page.
At the heart of the book is the evolving relationship between the newly married lovers, May and Isaac, as they struggle to save their country town home from demolition. The compelling narrative that Helen weaves is part love story, part mystery and part thriller, all written in language that is crackling, fresh and poetic. The lyrical opening paragraph sets the tone; for me, its evocation of the countryside is strongly reminiscent of Henry Lawson or Thomas Hardy.
May Camille Lyons stood beneath a blood moon and was not afraid. Nor did a prophecy of an apocalypse worry her, or that the red sky was sending a biblical warning. It was more the nervous pleasure and significance of the landscape around her; the purple garlands on tree-lined streets and hillsides of old-growth forests. In all her studies of astrology nothing could match the beauty of the heavens, the stars pulling down their abundant light over bush, river and threshold. A series of watercourses wandered in and out of the town. Edged with mineral-coloured rocks, wooden ladders to the bottom of jetties, old hardwood pylons and waterfowl imprinting muddy banks, the warm breezes sighed their way through the lazy stillness.
None of this will be a surprise to those of us who have had the privilege of attending Helen’s prose and poetry classes, or who are familiar with her previously published poetry.
Which brings me to the second reason I am delighted to help launch The Last Asbestos Town, and that is because Leanne and I had the privilege of being able to witness the artist at work. We are members of Helen’s prose critiquing group, where many of the book’s chapters were road-tested. We, excited beta-readers, were fortunate enough to enjoy a master class in the act of creative writing and, I hesitate even to say it, to offer opinions and suggestions.
As an aspiring novelist myself, to witness the birth of The Last Asbestos Town, from the first drafts with their spelling and grammatical mistakes, that prove that even the best of writers are human, through the honing, editing and polishing processes from which the final manuscript emerged, was both an inspiration and a great pleasure.
Not satisfied with the publication of one novel, Helen has been hard at work on a second, The Ozone Café. I am sure you will be delighted to hear that her publishers, Adelaide Books of New York, have already scheduled it for publication next year.
It is a very, great pleasure to help celebrate the publication and launch of The Last Asbestos Town, and I ask you to join me in wishing it, and Helen, every success.
– Richard Regan
Leanne Searle discusses The Last Asbestos Town by Helen Hagemann
I’m going to apologise in advance, because I am unaccustomed to reading from a prepared speech. Normally I would just get up, start talking and see what flowed out. But Helen has been asked for permission to publish the speeches from today’s launch in the Rochford Street Review, so really hope I haven’t missed any spelling mistakes.
I first met Helen way back in 2004 when she’d decided to attend one of Bruce Russell’s Friday morning classes here at the Arts Centre. I had only just returned after a two year gap, so I really didn’t pay much attention until the moment, over lunch, when Bruce made the announcement that he wouldn’t be teaching the classes anymore and then asked Helen if she would take them on. I don’t think anyone in the room was more shocked than Helen. But she graciously accepted the challenge, becoming the prose tutor.
Being a novice writer in those days, I really thought that poets were poets and prose writers only wrote prose. Helen kicked that idea out very quickly. She showed me that poets could not only write prose, they could even string enough words together for a whole novel. Further down the track when I’d learned more from Helen, with a seemingly innocuous writing exercise she could add a chapter to my novel or force my characters down paths that I just didn’t see coming.
Not content with just inspiring everyone in the classes, at lunch before a class, she said if the poets can have a critiquing group, we can too. Our group formed at the end of 2015 and we have been going strong ever since. And all the while she was still busy with her poetry; putting out two poetry books Evangelyne & Other Poems in 2009 and of Arc and Shadow in 2013. She has won residencies at Varuna, Shropshire, England, Ireland, and Portugal.
Over the last sixteen years Helen has been more than just a tutor, she has become a mentor and friend. I feel privileged to have edited and now to help launch The Last Asbestos Town.
– Leanne Searle
Richard Regan is a Fremantle based writer and member of the Out of the Asylum Writers (OOTA) group. He mostly writes fiction, short non-fiction and the occasional poem. A number of his short stories have been awarded prizes in Western Australian writing competitions, and his works are among those showcased in the 2019 OOTA Anthology, Locus. He has independently published two novels chronicling the adventures of a 1930s tramp steamer and her piratical captain, with a third on the way.
Leanne Searle is a prose writer of short stories and novels. Several of her short stories have been winners in local competitions. She is currently working on several novels, one of which has been submitted to Pan Macmillan for consideration. A long time member of OOTA (Out of the Asylum) writers’ group, she has been the treasurer for more than a decade. When Leanne is not writing she spends time growing vegetables, training in Taekwon-Do and enjoying good wine.
Helen Hagemann can be found at https://helenhagemann.wordpress.com/
The Last Asbestos Town is available from https://adelaidebooks.org/products/the-last-asbestos-town-by-helen-hagemann