After the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, Chloe Hooper found it incomprehensible that people would want to set fire to the bush and watch as people burnt and ran in terror from the flames.

Speaking to the Weekly Ms Hooper said three of the fires that day, in which there were fatalities, were deliberately lit.

“Climate change and fires are going to be increasingly common and I wanted to find out why someone would want to do something like that. It seemed incomprehensible to me.”.

The resulting book The Arsonist is a brilliant work of non-fiction in which Hooper finds an engrossing story from the chaos of Black Saturday.

Before choosing to focus on the Gippsland fires, Ms Hooper briefly considered Bendigo, where the situation was not dissimilar.

Two children were involved in the Bendigo fires but they were legally under age and intellectually disabled.

“The Churchill arsonist, Brendan Sokaluk, 42, was diagnosed with borderline autism. However he was deemed fit to go to trial by a number of clinical psychologists,” Ms Hooper said.

Ms Hooper said the local community needed to see that justice was done; 173 people died in regional Victoria on Black Saturday and 11 of them were from Churchill.

Even though Sokaluk’s personality and mental health was challenged, the prosecution wanted him to go to trial, otherwise he would have gone straight to a psychiatric prison.

Ms Hooper’s contention is that someone had to suffer for the pain and loss of that day and if it was to be Sokaluk, then so be it; he was a much more tangible target than the power companies.

The locals were antagonistic to outsiders and it was the arson squad which initially agreed to share their information with Ms Hooper. “That got me started and gave the book its direction. After that I had to keep an open mind and go where the evidence led me,” she said.

Finally, Legal Aid reluctantly talked to Ms Hooper and referred interview subjects to her.

“That was how I was able to get the interviews. Although only a handful of locals would talk to me,” she said.

“I felt resistance. It’s always complicated writing about trauma. I worked closely with people who had lost children, that was hard.

“I know there are people in the Latrobe Valley who won’t like the book, but we need to understand what happens during times like this.”

Ms Hooper then had to find her way her way through the maze of information and transcripts of interviews.

“The structure was something like a cake where I kept adding new ingredients. I wasn’t sure until the end whether it had worked or not,” she said.

“It was hard work to bring the different parties into the book but they all finally signed off on it and read it before it went to publication, so that was a relief.”

Like her much-praised previous non-fiction, The Tall Man, Ms Hooper’s writing holds you in its tight grip, while at the same time exploring the complexities of the personalities involved and their particular social milieu of coal-mining and poverty.   

Chloe Hooper will appear in the session, Fire People,  Friday, August 9,  3.15pm–4.15 pm, Bendigo Bank Theatre.

– Dianne Dempsey


Festival club writers

We’ve now got the line-up for the free late-night readings at the Festival Club in the bar at Bendigo Bowls Club. On Friday night from 9.30pm, Andrew Nette hosts Fleur Ferris, Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jarad Henry and Jock Serong for Crime After Dark.

On Saturday night from 9.30pm, Em Burgess-Gilchrist hosts Dianne Dempsey, Amy Doak, Colin King, Katrina Nannestad and Steve Proposch for Bendigo’s Best Bits. This could get rowdy. Local Bendigo writers read their stories from a new anthology, titled Goldfields. Published by Amy Doak, this is the first ever short story collection by and about Bendigo and its surrounds. It’s a pub atmosphere, so bring your friends. Bar open from 8pm, free entry, all welcome.

Stand up comedy act

Greg Fleet and his friend Judy will now be at the Festival Club, from 8pm on Saturday night. Stand-up comedy: it’s on. Still free entry, with what Greg calls a “Bucket of Love” at the door, so, up to you if you show your appreciation for the Greg-and-Judy show with cash or just with a good laugh.


Fleur Ferris joins the What’s New in Crime? panel on Sunday at 11am. Fleur writes young adult crime thrillers so brings an important perspective to the discussion.

Sarah Lawrence from Nine News Bendigo hosts the Regret panel on Saturday at 10am, replacing Steve Kendall who is now hosting Annika Smethurst on Sunday at 3pm, for her discussion about media freedom and the future of journalism.