My Brother Ben by Peter Carnavas
“I thought we had this connection, the bird and me. Like we were both lost and out of place.” (My Brother Ben)
Peter Carnavas first delighted readers with his picture books, which include The Children Who Loved Books, Jessica’s Box and Sarah’s Heavy Heart. Then he wrote the exquisite, award-winning children’s novel The Elephant before another picture book A Quiet Girl (all published University of Queensland Press).
My Brother Ben is Peter Carnavas’s poignant, tenderly written new middle fiction novel, also published by UQP.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Peter.
Where are you based and how does your writing integrate with your day job?
I live in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, on top of the range and around the corner from a rainforest. It’s a beautiful place to live, and I’m lucky enough to work in a beautiful school as a teacher-librarian, closer to the coast. Working as a TL for the past two years has given me a great balance as an author. I have an insight into children’s reading behaviours, I get to see all the wonderful new books come in to the library, and I often work with classes on different aspects of writing. From a practical perspective, the day job relieves the financial pressure of being a writer and has therefore given me the freedom to write what I really care about and take an easier pace.
Because of your title, My Brother Ben I keep thinking of George Johnson’s seminal novel My Brother Jack. Are you alluding to this book or is this coincidence?
Ah, no coincidence at all. I haven’t read My Brother Jack for a long time but I loved it very much years ago. This book, along with David Malouf’s Johnno, always held a special quality for me – the idea of a self-conscious protagonist admiring a bolder, braver version of themselves, only to be surprisingly admired in return. It’s an element I hoped to weave into My Brother Ben.
When and where is My Brother Ben set?
The story is set in today’s time, but I hope there’s a sense of timelessness about it. In a way, the boys’ childhood feels like it might have happened decades ago, but there are a few references to mobile phones in the story. I don’t like too many modern references because I don’t want those elements to become dated. The setting is a place called Cabbage Tree Creek, which meanders through the suburbs on the northern edge of Brisbane. My mum grew up in a small Queenslander house with a yard that backed into this creek, and this is the house I imagined when I was writing. The version of the creek is a bit romanticised in the book, and I changed a few things for narrative purposes, especially the size of it. Mum’s stories of this creek informed a lot of the description – the mud, mangroves and sandflies.
Please describe its style and tone.
I tend to write quiet stories, and I feel this book is like a gentle wave that slowly builds in intensity, then washes over you. It’s a first-person narrative, and I always try to keep my writing simple and direct yet elegant. There’s hopefully nothing flowery or sentimental about the tone, although I think there’s a certain nostalgic warmth throughout. I try to be a bit poetic in places but still keep in mind the narrator is a ten-year-old boy.
What is the importance and allure of the river that everyone calls a creek?
The creek in the story (which is really quite a bit bigger than a creek) presents opportunities for the boys. Ben sees it as a kind of freedom, something to explore, if only he can get a boat. For Luke, the creek is a place of birds. He knows there are more hiding around the bends and inlets – he just needs that boat. It’s also a way the boys connect with each other, but it also becomes a thread that binds almost all the characters throughout the story.
Could you please introduce your characters, Luke and Ben, and their relationship?
Luke is our narrator. He’s a quiet kid, a birdwatcher who carries a sketchbook and field guide everywhere he goes. Ben is Luke’s brother, a few years older, and much bolder. He’s the kind of boy who loves climbing things and kicking the footy as far as he can. They’re very different boys but they still have a lot of affection for each other. Luke admires Ben as a kind of backyard hero, while Ben sees himself as a sort of protector, sticking up for his quieter brother, especially since their Dad left. There’s a lot of humour and fun in their relationship, but as the story moves on, tension and frustration threatens their close bond.
What changes the rhythm of their lives?
Their relationship is disrupted when Ben starts high school and finds a friend more like himself. Luke suddenly feels outgrown and left behind, and he wonders if they’ll ever be close brothers again. I’ve always been interested in this idea, when the youngest sibling is outgrown, because it’s a natural and inevitable thing in most families, but it still hurts.
Birds feature in this book. How/why have you used birds in your plot and as a symbol?
I love birds and I’ve wanted to use them as a theme for a long time. The family structures of birds fascinate me, and there are many opportunities for symbolism (the trick was to not overdo it). The story is essentially about growing up, becoming less dependent on those who look after us, so the parallel of the magpie’s increasing independence provided a useful point of symbolism for Luke. Then there are the apostlebirds, the tawny frogmouths… there are so many connections.
You mention the powerful owl. My own son is enraptured by this bird and goes into the bush specifically to find and watch it. Which bird is your “soul bird” or has a special place in your heart?
That’s brilliant! I’ve never seen a powerful owl myself. My soul bird is a slow-moving waterbird, like a white-faced heron. Whenever I see them standing still, ankle-deep in water, they seem like they’re just daydreaming, contemplating something small and unimportant. Basically, it’s like looking in a mirror.
A big ask that you may choose not to agree to – but I find your description on page 130, “It was mainly bush here and just a few houses. They looked like shapes cut from black cardboard, like the backdrop of a play” highly evocative. Could you quickly sketch it to reproduce here?
(Thanks Peter, this is absolutely wonderful!)
You have dedicated this book to your brothers. What impact have they had on your life?
I have two older brothers and they’ve had a huge impact on me. My eldest brother introduced me to a lot of interesting music, setting up my tastes from then on. He’d take me to record shops around Brisbane, and to some of my first gigs. My other brother is just a few years older than me, and he was the one I grew up with, playing backyard cricket, collecting footy cards and playing computer games. I looked up to him a lot as a kid, and we did everything together until, of course, he started high school
What are you writing now or next?
I’m in the early stages of a novel for young readers, probably aimed at mid-primary school. It’s a story with an imaginative element, a bit like The Elephant, and set in a small country town in Queensland. At this stage I’d say it’s about family (of course) and opening ourselves up to the power of imagination.
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
I’m halfway through Karen Foxlee’s Dragon Skin and I love it. Karen has a wonderful knack for character voice, drawing you in and maintaining a level of tension without you quite realising it. Other favourites from this year include Sara Pennypacker’s Pax and its sequel, and Kate Di Camillo’s Raymie Nightingale trilogy.
How would you prefer your readers contact you?
Happy to receive emails at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for your excellent responses, Peter and for this gem of a book.
My Brother Ben is a testament to the beauty and care of your care and craft.
“Things don’t always work out the way we hope they will. But even on the dark days, birds still sing. So open a window and look outside, for when you open your eyes to birds, the world opens itself in return.” (My Brother Ben)