Five Questions with Katherine Johnson

Our authors are the heart of Ventura - without them we wouldn’t have the books we do! But what makes them tick? What lies behind their passion for literature? To answer these sought after questions, we’re bringing you the Five Questions With series to give you a little more insight into who lies behind the words you’re reading.



October is often a big month in publishing, so it’s fitting that Katherine Johnson’s fourth novel steal the limelight for our fiction release. Following six years of research and a PhD, Katherine Johnson brings a little-known but true story that traces the darker side of P.T Barnum's Greatest Showman to blazing life. Paris Savages was inspired by the story of three Badtjala people, Bonangera (Bonny/Boni), Jurano and Dorondera, who journeyed from their home on Fraser Island to the heart of Europe in the 1880s to perform as ethnographic exhibitions, otherwise known as 'human zoos'. We chat to Katherine about the inspirations and experience of crafting her masterpiece work of fiction.

_DSC7449 katherine johnson credit jack lloyd-parker.jpg
  1. What do you love about writing and literature?

Writing and literature can both take you deep inside a person’s interior reality and can transport you across oceans and continents. It can be revelationary and transformational; it can also be quiet and reassuring. It can show us new and imaginative ways of seeing the present or the past and can point to imagined futures, whether familiar or far-fetched. Fiction, by definition, is imagined, and there-in lies its strength. It provokes contemplation and conversation, opening potential new doors to understanding, empathy and connectedness. And, perhaps most powerfully of all, it can hold a mirror up to ourselves and make us question old assumptions and imagine new futures.

2. Tell us a little about the inspiration behind Paris Savages. Why was it so important to write?

Paris Savages was inspired by something I heard on the radio – a documentary about the discovery, in a museum basement in Lyon, France, of a full body plaster cast of a young Aboriginal man from Fraser Island, Queensland. The cast was in storage and hadn’t been on public display for many years. I went to France and visited the cast and it was incredible – almost as if I had gone back in time to the 1880s. As the museum attendant wound the handle on the enormous storage stacks, opening them up, a shape emerged – a man standing proudly, a boomerang over his head. The man was Bonangera (Bonny/Boni), and it transpired that he and two fellow Badtjala people had been taken to Europe for exhibition. They were shown throughout Germany and in France and Switzerland, and I could not stop thinking about what this might have been like for them. They danced and sang, threw boomerangs and climbed poles, meant to resemble trees. Just as thought provoking was what this period in history says about the western people looking on, and the scientists who studied the visiting performers. Not long after seeing the cast, Adam Goodes was called an ‘ape’ on the football field, and he called on Australians to be educated about prejudice. The more I looked into the story of ‘human zoos’, the more it struck me that the stereotypes and misrepresentations that still exist in some sectors today have their origins in this little-known period of history. It seemed to me essential to contest those old stereotypes and turn the ‘camera’ back out to the audience looking on – to ask, who were the real savages?

3. What are you currently reading?

I’ve just started reading – literally a page in – Leah Kaminsky’s The Hollow Bones. We have an event together at Readings in Hawthorn and I’m very much looking forward to meeting Leah and reading the book. I’ve also recently started Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, which was chosen by my bookclub. I loved Gilbert’s Big Magic and look forward to getting into this book, too. So far, I’m enjoying its ‘light/fun’ but sharp and witty voice. I’m also listening to Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe as an audiobook. And I’ve got about two other audio books on the go to. Must try to stick to one at a time!

4. Tell us about the book that has impacted you the most.

I’ll go back in time to my early adolescence to answer this one. Growing up, we had on our family bookshelf Thoreau’s Walden, and I remember being completely captivated by the ideas in that book. The concepts that stayed with me were: the value and importance of wildness and nature in our lives, the value of simplicity, and the value of carving your own path/taking the path less travelled and how quickly we tend to find ourselves beating the same old path out of habit and routine if we’re not careful.

5. What is the value of books in the fast-paced, digital world that we live in?

Books have infinite value in our modern world. Essentially, I think that stopping to read a book has the capacity to slow us down. It’s meditative in that it makes us focus on only one thing at a time, which seems to have become a luxury given all the competing demands and overstimulation we’ve become so accustomed to. But they are a bit magical, too, books, in that they can also wake us up. Indeed, maybe we have to slow down to be able to reflect and contemplate and ‘wake up’.

Read more about Katherine and her latest book Paris Savages, or head to our events page to save the date as Paris Savages goes on tour.