THE Murray River is a ‘‘sanctuary’’ for the protagonist in Sofie Laguna’s latest novel, The Choke.
It’s why the 49-year-old spent 12 months travelling to Echuca from Melbourne, sitting on the banks of the river, taking in all of its beauty.
Her intention was to live and breathe the river so the authenticity would translate to her writing.
And it seems it worked, with her novel having received great reviews since it hit the shelves recently.
‘‘I spent a lot of weekends in Echuca. As many as my husband would allow me to have,’’ Sofie laughed.
‘‘I would come up and stay for two nights and be on the Murray and write.
‘‘When I was choosing the setting and doing the research, I knew I had to choose somewhere that I could get to from home (Melbourne).
‘‘It had to be a place of natural beauty. When I began researching rural settings, Echuca was on my radar. Then I researched its history and the choice was easy to make.
‘‘It was a thrilling way to write. I was very affected by the river and the haunting beauty of the place.’’
The book that consumed her life for 12 months, The Choke tells the story of a child navigating an often dark and uncaring world of male power and violence.
Set about 25km from Echuca, abandoned by her mother and only occasionally visited by her secretive father, Justine is raised by her pop, a man tormented by visions of the Burma Railway.
Justine finds sanctuary in Pop’s chooks and The Choke, where the banks of the Murray River are so narrow it seems they might touch — ‘‘a place of staggering natural beauty’’.
But the river can’t protect Justine from danger. Her father is a criminal and the world he exposes her to can be lethal.
‘‘His actions will have a chain reaction that leads to a very serious drama in Justine’s life,’’ Sofie said.
Surprisingly enough, writing has not always been Sofie’s first love.
Originally from Sydney, that belonged to acting, which saw her move to Melbourne to go to acting school.
‘‘I had a pretty gruelling stretch as an actor,’’ she said.
‘‘That was up until I was 30 and wrote a picture book manuscript that I had a really good feeling about. I submitted it to a number of publishers and it was accepted.
‘‘From then on I never looked back. It was the love of character that drew me to acting and I can express all of that in a much more powerful way as a writer.’’
Sofie has written about 20 children books and three adult novels.
‘‘I won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015 (for her adult novel, The Eye of the Sheep),’’ she said.
‘‘That (win) was difficult to absorb at the time.
‘‘I was blindsided by it to be honest. But obviously I was thrilled about it, it advanced a lot of things.
‘‘It extended my readership and gave me a lot of public attention. I had a very young baby when I won the award so I was very much out of my depth. I’m still out of my depth.’’
The only time Sofie isn’t out of her depth is when she’s writing.
‘‘That’s when I’m comfortable,’’ Sofie said.
‘‘(My stories come out) a bit like a movie in my head then I get to know the character on the page.
‘‘In the beginning I look for a plan, like a map, because I need to know pretty early on where I am heading.
‘‘I’m calmer once I have a map and then I make my way through the story. I get to know the characters more deeply as I go.’’
As for people aspiring to be an author, Sofie’s advice is simple.
‘‘Keep a diary or journal, practice, and enjoy,’’ she said.
‘‘Enjoy language and words, and enjoy the act of writing. Know that it’s good for you regardless of what happens.’’
You only have to spend 20 minutes interviewing Sofie to get a snapshot of her life.
She has two children, Sonny (7) and Milo (2), both of whom make an appearance throughout.
Milo can be heard in the background while her eldest cut the interview short after his school rang to let Sofie know he was sick.
‘‘Sorry, that’s the nature of my life at the moment,’’ Sofie explained when she called the Riverine Herald back.
That’s ok Sofie, we understand.
Can we expect you to return to Echuca any time soon?
‘‘Yes,’’ she said.
‘‘I did the international women’s event with Rosalie Ham at the Echuca library and I am organising another event with the library.
‘‘I’m already seeing when I can book another weekend regardless of whether I am writing or not.
‘‘I just want to be there. I love it, it makes me so happy.’’
The Choke is available from Collins Booksellers in Echuca.