Strange Creatures and the Nella Dan: An interview with Favel Parrett

Melissa Cranenburgh speaks to Favel Parrett about her latest novel, When the Night Comes, and how it came to life, revisiting the 1980s Hobart of Parrett’s childhood and resurrecting the well-loved Antarctic supply ship, Nella Dan.

Favel Parrett

Favel Parrett

Back in the 1980s, when Favel Parrett was a young girl growing up in Hobart’s Battery Point, the now-busy tourist area was still a quiet, cold, sometimes eerie place. ‘Back then, the whole [area] was totally in decay,’ Parrett recalls. ‘There were no cafes, there were a few galleries and … there was never any one around.’

But another memory of that time in Hobart came to the fore when Parrett, now in her early forties and living in Melbourne, found some black-and-white pictures that used to be on the walls of her childhood home. One of them was a picture of the Danish supply ship, Nella Dan, which would dock in Hobart for four or five days at a stretch after visiting the Antarctic research base, Casey.

On the back of the picture, someone had written ‘Nella Dan, our ship. Isn’t she a beaut.’ It was penned after the ship had been scuttled. For Parrett, the memories all came back. ‘You’d see her come in and she was beautiful, and Hobart seemed different when she was around.’

Parrett’s mother had formed connections with Nella Dan’s Danish crew over six or seven seasons and Parrett remembers the parties on board, the Danish pastries, the smell of ‘real coffee’ and being awestruck in the presence of the sailors. ‘They used to come to our house and use the phone and leave money … And some of them used to cook for us,’ she says. ‘And to me as a kid they were like these giant strange creatures.’

Then things changed. ‘I remember hearing about the fire and I remember people crying in our house. And I remember people being really angry and wearing these T-shirts saying, “Nella Dan crew will never surrender.” I didn’t really understand why there was a fire, what had happened … and so I just started writing that day. I thought: I just want to know.’

The resulting book, When the Night Comes, is awash with these memories. The narrative, a beautifully spare collection of distilled scenes, is built around the connection between a young girl, Isla, who lives with her little brother and somewhat absent mother, and one of the Danish sailors, Bo – who works in the ship’s galley. On shore, Isla’s life is bleak – she looks after her brother and weathers the cold realities in Hobart. But through Bo she connects with life on and beyond the oceans.

Isla’s mother remains on the fringes of the story, more present by her absence. The sense that she is out of her depth – a young woman, alone, trying to raise two children but not really succeeding – is just alluded to. Delicately painted through the lens of Isla. Parrett says that much of the way in which the mother came into being is through her writing method: being so completely in Isla’s point of view, we see her mother as Isla would.

‘What she’s really focusing on is her brother, and the two of them struggling,’ says Parrett. ‘And this man, who’s kind and a bit exciting … as long as he keeps coming she doesn’t really want to know about their relationship, the mum and Bo. So how then do I write more about the mum without going out of character? Well in fact that question never came up because it’s organic and it just comes in pieces …’

When the Night Comes, even more than Parrett’s Miles Franklin shortlisted debut, Past the Shallows (2011), is a novel that focuses on the importance of small moments. ‘I write in scenes, and I don’t write in order and I don’t know the story,’ says Parrett. ‘I draft 10, 12, 15 sometimes 20 times. And the scenes are entities on their own, like a short story … And then they just all end up on my floor and hundreds don’t make it to the book.’

While Parrett has drawn on her own experience as a child in Hobart, her vivid portrait of Bo’s life aboard the ship was the legacy of a lot of research: spending time in Denmark, meeting with old Nella Dan crew members who would still tear up when talking about their beloved ship. ‘There are Danish sailors all over the world who have written to me, sent photos, I’ve just had so much help.’

Parrett, as part of a writing grant, experienced first-hand life aboard a ship bound for Antarctica: Aurora Australis. ‘I was determined not to love her like I love Nella. So I was, like: not going to like her, not going to like her. But two weeks in you’re like patting the bulk in the middle of the night, going, “Good girl”. So they keep you safe, it’s warm, you sleep so well, everything you need is there and you become this tight-knit group.’

This feeling of ‘being in a body, carrying you all’ was so strong that when, after six weeks aboard, it came time to disembark in Hobart, Parrett felt grief-stricken. It gave her insight into just how strong the connection must have been on board Nella, with its camaraderie among the crew and passengers. ‘She went through the biggest seas there are, 26 years she kept everyone safe … thousands and thousands and thousands of people.’

Now, in Parrett’s fictitious rendering, Nella Dan breaks through the ice once more. For some, it will be a homecoming.