The Break by Phillip Gwynne
“But nobody had made Kimbo smuggle those drugs, had they? He’d known the penalty. How could he not, there were signs all over the airport.” (The Break)
The Break is a high-octaneYA tale that will be remembered for a long while. Phillip Gwynne skilfully incorporates the angst his protagonist Taj feels and the dilemma he faces when his father, who is convicted of drug-smuggling and is given the death penalty, with his life and love of surfing in Bali. This is an exciting, suspenseful novel that will make readers think.
The Break is published by Penguin Books Australia.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Phillip.
This is the third time I’ve interviewed you here, which must be a record for me.
Your new YA novel The Break is set in Bali. Please tell us three things that make Bali distinctive, and maybe even that you have included in the book.
The first overseas trip I took was to Bali and even though that was over 40 years ago I still remember it as if it was yesterday. The tropical landscape was such a contrast to the dry South Australian bush of my childhood. And then there was the culture: so exuberant, so exotic, again so different to what I’d grown up with. I’ve visited Bali many many times since – and lived there for five years – but every time I step off that plane at Denpasar my senses are still overwhelmed.
It is rare to see mention of Timor-Leste in an Australian YA novel. In fact, I can’t recall this country appearing in any fiction I’ve read. Have you visited and, if so, what is your impression?
I worked as a writer on TV series in Timor-Leste so have been there many times. It’s a fascinating country, which has had an extraordinarily rich history. As one of Australia’s closest neighbours (it’s only a bit over an hour’s flight from Darwin!) I feel like it’s a shame it hasn’t been more represented in our fiction.
The cover of The Break is atmospheric. How does it suggest what your story is about?
I think covers – like stories – are open to countless interpretations, none more valid than the next. But having said that, I like the predominately yellow colour of the cover, perhaps not what you’d expect of a tropical island. Except, of course, if you know about Mount Agung, the towering volcano in Bali’s centre, and its predilection for erupting at inopportune times!
Your title is well chosen. What is its significance?
Taj, the main character, is a committed surfer, so ‘break’ refers to surfing breaks, and in particular The Break – the mythical left-hander, the only wave in the world that was still unsurfed. Or if it was, only by a select few.
But it also refers to a jailbreak – when his father Kimbo, who has been in jail for ten years on the charge of drug smuggling, is given a date for his execution, Taj decides to bust him out of Kerobokan jail. But I think there is one more ‘break’ in the book. In order for Taj to go on the run with his father through the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia he needs to break away from the mother who has brought him up single-handedly since his father was incarcerated.
What genre is The Break?
I think it’s a political thriller – though my protagonists are only 16, though they do not yet have the vote, they become active players on a very big geopolitical stage.
The surfing scenes in the novel are a highlight. What is the key to writing a good surfing scene?
Have a son who surfs! I’m an ocean person, but not a surfer, so it was with some trepidation that I embarked on a novel where surfing plays such a central role. But, as mentioned, I do have a son, and many friends, who are serious surfers so I was able to run – or float – everything I wrote past them.
Please tell us more about your 16-year-old protagonist Taj.
Taj is Australian, but he’s an expat kid – he’s spent most of his life on the island of Bali in the country of Indonesia. All teenagers struggle with identity but expat kids – or Third Culture kids as they’re sometimes known – often have even greater difficulty finding who they are. Taj also has a very privileged lifestyle – he has a driver, he has maids, many things are done for him and because of this he has a feeling that he lacks any real agency in the world, that he lacks the ability to change his circumstances. But when his father is given a date for his execution Taj realises that there is only one person able to save his dad from the executioners’ bullets – and that’s Taj himself.
And introduce some of your other characters …
The Break is written in the third person, but the POV switches. Most of the story we learn from Taj, but other characters are also involved. Kartika and Inga are the same age as Taj and are both strong complex young women who are changed by their involvement in Taj’s quest to save his father’s life.
What are some of the major ideas or issues in your story?
Again I struggle with a writer dictating to a reader what their story is about – I’ll leave it to the reader to decide that! But given that Kimbo, Taj’s father, has been sentenced to death, The Break obviously deals with the death penalty, both arguments for and against. In general, questions around law, and morality, play a big part in this book. Is it ok to break the law – as Taj frequently does – in order to save his father?
What was the mood about drug smugglers and the death penalty when you lived in Bali?
Though it is true that the majority of Indonesians supported the death penalty as punishment for drug smuggling there were also many who opposed it. One of the challenges in writing The Break was to capture this multiplicity of views, not to do a ‘job’ on Indonesia, a country I admire enormously.
Why have you written The Break and/or what awareness do you hope your story generates in your readers?
The provocation for writing The Break was the execution of Myu Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. By their own admission they were ‘wannabee gangstas’ when they were first arrested but they’d been rehabilitated in prison, had become loving, caring men, and in Sukumaran’s case, an extremely talented one.
I believe that many young people, especially in this time of a pandemic, feel pessimistic about their place in the world, especially about their ability to change it.
At one stage in The Break, when it’s all feeling too much, Taj says ‘His father’s destiny was no longer in his hands. It was up to two old men in suits…’
But Taj, with the help of his friends, rallies. It’s my hope is that The Break can provide an example, and an action packed one at that, on how young people can create agency for themselves.
In a poignant scene the song Amazing Grace is sung. Why have you included this song?
It was the song that Myu Sukumarun and Andrew Chan sang as they were executed.
How would you prefer your readers contact you?
Thank you for your responses, Phillip. The Break is an important book, told in a style that will make many readers grab and devour it.