Interview with
Matthew Condon

This is a really lengthy, epic piece of writing. How do you go about collecting the information and choosing what to include?

It could have been longer. From the outset, I understood intuitively there's an entire book – a non-fiction book – in the [2011] Queensland disasters. The great narrative of that disaster has yet to be written. I'm sure it will be in the future.

I sort of took on this task naively without fully comprehending the immensity of the reading involved. [Griffith REVIEW editor] Julianne [Schultz] and I wanted to reconstruct a narrative to take people inside the horror of that disaster and make it read like something thrilling, like fiction.

Everything I needed was contained in the submissions to the [Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry]. As is the modern world, they put up daily web transcripts of the inquiry – these ran to about five thousand pages in the end. There was an enormous amount of material that one had to wade through.

Once you picked out the pieces, it was a matter of reconstructing the information into a linear narrative. It was a real puzzle to try and piece together structurally. I haven't used one thousandth of the material that was available to me, but I did read as much as I humanly could. I took out some very dramatic, tragic pieces from people who suffered immensely at the hands of that disaster.

One of your 'characters' in Grantham mentions her memory of her father's great flood stories, which sets the scene for Queenslanders' long history with such disasters. Was that intentional?

One of the important themes is about remembering, and about the importance of the history [of Queensland's floods]. There were the great events of the 1850s, a number of serious events in the 1890s, then we get into the twentieth century and of course there's [the Brisbane flood of] 1974. When you look back at these and line them all up, you see this very familiar pattern. When the floods came through Brisbane [early in 2011], people were shocked and in awe, dismayed.

Having been through 1974 when I was a little boy, [I can see] what we do as human beings is we quickly forget and we are surprised. It's the same cycle that rolls around over and over. What is essential about Brisbane in 2011 is that it's a very different city to what it was, for example in 1974. Then, there was just short of 900,000 people living there; today, greater Brisbane is over two million.

We've more than doubled the population; we've built housing estates, shopping complexes; and the generation of 1974 are all dying out. So what you have is a very young city in Brisbane, a generation who has no experience of '74.

For the older people – and I'll count myself in that – if you've lived through a cataclysmic event like that, especially in your childhood, you will never ever forget it. Many people have what I like to call that 'watermark' in the back of their minds. For some, [the 2011 flood] was exciting; for some, it was unpredictable. But for others it was very, very predictable. There is all of that at play in the narrative.

Looking through all the transcripts, how did you select the people's stories you wanted to include?

[The narrative flows] through very technical forecasting, data-style information. Then, you are weaving in the human stories, which I think is bringing it back to something very tangible and very emotional.

I found the personal submissions people put into the inquiry fascinating; they told the real human drama of the event. I didn't meet them, but I felt that I had through their submissions.

I went through hundreds trying to find those that would fit most appropriately into my narrative as it moved, especially [as the flood came] down off the Toowoomba range and the absolute freakish devastation in the Lockyer Valley.

The weather element is so fascinating, which is why I opened the piece with the Bureau of Meteorology and the assortment of radars and eyes they constantly keep on the state. Because, ultimately, this was a historic weather event – the Bureau made an address to the state cabinet in October 2010, which had never been done before.

Basically, they were saying, 'Look, there is something evil on its way you have to be prepared for.' And away it went from there. Sure enough they were correct, unfortunately.

There seems to be a message that weather patterns can be detected so early, and yet the weather remains such an unmanageable force.

When you read submissions from people down in Grantham, for example, the water was literally rising before their eyes – we are talking ten metres in ten minutes. There is absolutely nothing you can do on this planet to prepare yourself for something like that. I don't think anyone was prepared for the event that occurred.

In the Toowoomba scenario, here's this very pretty little town eight hundred metres above sea level, perched on the edge of the Great Dividing Range. To see what was literally described as an inland tsunami tear through Toowoomba, you couldn't believe what you were seeing because it just didn't seem physically possible.

Tell me about your personal experience of the 2011 Brisbane floods.

I was in the city on January 11 when the river was at its most ferocious. It was one of the most eerie things: sand bags everywhere, windows boarded up, and the council had removed the parking meters. It was one of the strangest feelings, walking around a dead city. You felt very exposed and unprotected.

I watched that river tear down through the Gallery of Modern Art and flood the bottom level of the State Library and it was just mind-blowing. Then my wife rang me and said, 'I've heard this rumour that the dam is going to blow.' For a sickening second, I thought I'd doomed my family by not getting them out.

For people who weren't around, it's hard to explain that it was a very terrifying event. When many people lost their lives, it was a genuinely frightening piece of history in the state.

You've written about Brisbane's 2011 flood before (Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas/The Flood). Did you feel at the time you would go on to write a piece about Queensland's 2011 floods as a whole?

When you're in a specific place and you just happen to be a writer, sometimes you feel an obligation to chronicle certain things. The floods for me are a little bit like that. To be honest, I think I'm a little bit flooded out at the moment. This big piece in a sense hollowed me out. I might leave my flood literature at that!

You have a close connection to the city, to Queensland, and to its flooding history. How does that impact on your urge to write about the floods?

There is a personal investment here. I was born here and grew up in Brisbane, left when in my early twenties and came back in my forties. Since then, the city has given me a family and a great life. Also, Brisbane is a very strange city in that your childhood here has a very strong hold. There is something about this city that grabs your heartstrings – when you come back you feel very protective of it.

I feel like I have an obligation to do well at what I do for the people of the city and the state. In my position of editor of our Saturday magazine [QMagazine], the first issue I'm publishing in late January [2012] is a piece on the children of the floods. It looks at interviews with a dozen kids from Brisbane, Grantham, Toowoomba and other parts of the state, and how the flood has impacted their lives.

As people wait for that first anniversary to roll past, there will be another dimension to this disaster; the unfolding and the exposure of the psychological damage on the public. I think it will be discussed at length in the next few years, so my piece is very much an early, pre-narrative of what happened.

Aside from this piece, it seems you've really dedicated yourself to this 'flood literature'. About your
Fear, Faith and Hope (UQP, 2012) picture book on the floods, you recently commented it seemed like just yesterday the flood happened even though it was nearly a year on. Do you think that sentiment speaks for many others in Brisbane and Queensland?

Yes, because the scar is still around and will be for years. These are the physical scars, literally – I can drive five hundred metres from my home and see an abandoned house in the middle of western Brisbane. I don't know what happened to that family, but they simply were not able to come back.

There are places like that all over the city, and all over the state. This was a very, very physically damaging event that affected 75 per cent of the landmass of this state – and it's a big state – it impacted two and a half million people. This is a place that is still in the very early stages of healing.

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