Author Cassandra Austin.
Author Cassandra Austin. Contributed

BOOKS: Superstition a central theme in new outback thriller

SET a man to watch all night. It was this little-known verse in a popular nursery rhyme, London Bridge is Falling Down, which planted the seed of an idea in Cassandra Austin's mind.

Years later, the Aussie expat is celebrating the release of her second novel, All Fall Down, a captivating outback mystery exploring the interplay between mythology and reality. Speaking to Weekend from her home in Los Angeles, Cassandra said human sacrifice had always been the centre of the story.

After becoming intrigued by the nursery rhyme line, she found a belief, spanning centuries and cultures, in a sacrifice being needed to keep a new bridge standing.

"It really was that idea that people across the world had believed, that in order to get a structure to stand, whether it was a building or whether it was a bridge, there had to be a human sacrifice involved and that really just struck a chord within me," Cassandra said.

"It wasn't just one particular belief nor one particular time, it was over hundreds of years, thousands of years.

"I was just fascinated by that and I was fascinated by the idea of - could this just be a contemporary belief, could someone believe this contemporarily and what would that actually mean?"

There was a major problem when it came to examining this belief in a modern sense.

"Technology is a pain in the neck for a novelist," Cassandra said.

"Any plot problems can be solved by picking up a phone and calling someone, or hopping on the internet and seeing whether or not this or that is true. I needed an environment where people needed to be able to carry a superstition, for it to be able to ferment."

All Fall Down is the latest book by author Cassandra Austin.
All Fall Down is the latest book by author Cassandra Austin. Contributed

For this, Cassandra returned to her rural Australian roots. By isolating her characters, in a physical and technological sense, Cassandra managed to deal with today's constant flow of information.

Set in a tiny South Australian outback town, All Fall Down feels starkly Australian. The vivid, unsettling backdrop becomes a character in its own right. And it's not hard to understand why when you learn Cassandra herself grew up on a property near the rural town of Blighty in the Riverina in New South Wales.

It is on the highway between Finley and Deniliquin. Cassandra described it as an "extraordinary place to grow up".

With no television allowed on the property, Cassandra said she always felt an intimate connection to the land. She described raising poddy calves, enduring mouse and locust plagues, and the hundreds of kangaroos she once saw bounding across the family's crops, leaving them in ruins.

"It was a magical way to grow up, understanding the cycle of life. I think it did deeply influence me in that land is definitely a character for me. I definitely see that, it's a strong force in my work," she said.

Cassandra's childhood was also where her love of storytelling originated, starting with telling scary stories to her cousins before bed.

"I always knew that I would write, I don't think I had any doubt about that," she said.

But writing wasn't Cassandra's first career choice. Instead she studied criminology and worked in that field for several years.

She said it served to improve her writing, "toughened her up" and taught her how to feel empathetic to the criminal mind.

"I could take on perspectives that weren't ones I'd share in the real world, but I could readily take on as another character to understand what could motivate someone to do something that I might not agree with or like," she said.

When it came to All Fall Down, expanding a short story into a novel was a challenge.

It is told from seven perspectives, and Cassandra said the format proved the biggest challenge when it came to writing.

"I had to find a way to tell this story," she said.

"I always knew that I wanted to have seven different perspectives, but what I didn't know was how difficult it would be to write ... and keep each chapter going forward.

"That took a lot of work, working out who was going to tell the story at each point in time."

Cassandra hopes her evocative outback setting will stay with readers, taking them away from their everyday life.

All Fall Down, by Cassandra Austin, published by Penguin Random House Australia, RRP $29.99, is out now.


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