Q&A with Matthew Ryan Davies, author of The Broken Wave
Where did the idea for The Broken Wave come from?
I talk about this in the back of the book because I want readers to understand a bit about why this book is so personal to me. I had the idea back in 2007 when I was in New Zealand for a wedding. While I was there, I visited my childhood friend, Tom. We spent a short time together as 12-year-olds when we were both living in an expat community in Asia, where our dads had been posted for work. I’d seen him a few times in the intervening years, but it wasn’t until this trip in 2007 that I’d met his son for the first time. It struck me how similar his son was to my boyhood friend, and that’s when I had the idea for this book. In a similar way, when grown-up Drew meets Tom’s son for the first time, it triggers memories of their time together as kids.
The characters of Drew and Tom are very much based on me and the real-life Tom.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I spent a lot of time in Queenscliff walking the streets, talking to people and making sure I had details right—I was particularly conscious of being accurate about what it was like in 1992 compared with 2018. I was writing it in 2021/2022, so some things were even different from 2018 (some shops had closed down as a result of the pandemic, for example). I spoke to the historical society, found photos from the time and sent my book to three readers who grew up in Queenscliff to check.
I also did a lot of research into the lived experience of postnatal depression/psychosis, and read books and articles about Gulf War illness/syndrome .
With Tom being from the US, I had to research differences between American and Australian culture, think about the things that he would have noticed were different—like our power outlets having switches—and words/phrases that might sound strange to his American ear. There are a lot more than you might think! Also, because Drew had grown up mostly in Minnesota, I had to research the areas where he might have lived, worked, studied and ate out, and what local slang words they use (in 1992 and 2018).
I also had to research period-related details for the 1992 scenes—what kids might have worn, what they might have done for fun, what music they would have been listening to and what movies they would have been watching. I turned 18 in 1992, so I remember it well, but I still had to check what TV shows were popular at the time and I couldn’t remember when we made the switch from VHS to DVD (it was before 1992, by the way).
This is your second general fiction novel. Did you suffer from second novel syndrome like Drew does in the book?
No is the short answer. My actual second novel was Things We Bury, which came out last year. My first published novel was a young adult book (This Thing of Darkness in 2018), so adult family drama was a new category for me. As a result it felt like a debut. I also published it under a different name from my YA, so the industry and readers probably saw it as a debut too.
The Broken Wave is my second novel in the general fiction category, but to meet contractual obligations with my publisher I submitted it before Things We Bury was published, so there was no weight of expectation or pressure from Things We Bury because, at that time, I had no idea how successful it would or wouldn’t be.
How long did it take you to write?
90 days. I know that sounds very specific, but that’s kind of what it was. They weren’t consecutive days, mind you, so it was way more than three months. I’d heard about this book called The 90-Day Novel, which is awesome, by the way, and when I only had a year to write a book from scratch, I thought I’d give it a try. It breaks down the whole process into 90 days, although you don’t actually start writing until about day 30. The first 29 days are spent getting to know your protagonist and antagonist. I like it because it’s not prescriptive; it encourages you to develop a rough outline (which is what I would normally do anyway) and then to write without being tied to it, just holding the story loosely in your mind so it can unfold the way it wants to. It gives daily encouragement and tracks roughly where you should be up to at given points, but again, it’s not rigid. It helped me a lot.
From when I first started to write to handing the manuscript to my publisher was pretty much a year.
Why did you choose Queenscliff—a real place—as your setting?
First, for its military history. I knew that Tom’s American stepfather had been in the Gulf War (which took place the year before part of the book is set—in 1992), so it was plausible that he might be posted to Australia in a military capacity.
When I googled the locations of American military bases in Australia, I found there were a couple in the Northern Territory,at Pine Gap and Darwin, and a couple in Western Australia, Exmouth and Kojarena. None of those locations appealed to me as a setting for my story, and they were so far away from where I live in Melbourne. Then I thought of Swan Island—an island off the coast of Queenscliff where secret military business goes on. Given its activities are not shared with the public, I thought that it was credible that a weapons specialist from the US might be brought over to consult or train there.
I was already pretty familiar with Queenscliff, plus it’s within driving distance from my house. It’s a beautiful place, so it’s very easy to spend time there.
Why did you choose to set it in 1992 and 2018?
I chose 2018 because I wanted it to be pre-pandemic. When I was writing it in 2021, we still didn’t know where we were at COVID-wise, so it was easier to pick a time before COVID.
As for 1992, I went to an American high school when I was a kid where you are always and forever known by the year you graduated. I was the Class of 1992, so that year is soaked into my DNA now. That fitted with the earlier timeframe of my book, which had to be soon after the Gulf War. I wanted the kids to be 12-years-old in 1992 so them being 38 in 2018 felt like a good age for the later part of the story.
Can you talk about the similarities and differences between the real Tom and the fictional Tom?
The real Tom is still alive, for a start.
In terms of similarities, they have the same name, they look the same (right down to the concave chest), they act the same, they have the same quirks and mannerisms, they are interested in a lot of the same things. He really introduced me to egg sandwiches and remote controlled cars. He wanted to be a marine biologist, his mum was a scientist who rode a motorbike, and he was always telling me random facts. He liked a tall girl called Marissa when we were in school. His dad worked in finance, but it was my dad who worked for Ford Motor Company. He really did put on his t-shirts that way, pulling the whole thing over his torso then poking his arms through.
As for differences, he was never a fisherman, although he loved the ocean. The person the character becomes as an adult is quite different for the real man—his job, where he lives, his family situation.
I also pilfered some of Drew’s story from Tom. Tom lived in Minnesota for years because his wife, Cathy, is from there. He’s a New Zealander by nationality, so he lived there for a long time too. He lives in Illinois now.
Tom’s real-life son, David, introduced me to the potato shooter.
What was something really interesting you discovered in researching this book?
Americans have no idea what hundreds and thousands are—they call them sprinkles. Also, some pretty cool things were invented in Minnesota, where Drew comes from—the Snickers bar, rollerblades, sticky tape, the pop-up toaster, waterskis and Post-It notes, for example. Minnesota has more than 10,000 lakes.
I wanted Drew to be into etymology as well, so I discovered some cool stuff about word origins. Here’s one example from the book: the word ‘arena’ comes from the Latin word harena, which is a kind of fine-grained sand that covered the floor of ancient stadiums like the Colosseum in Rome to absorb all the blood and stuff.
The other story I stumbled upon was the legend of Benito’s treasure. In the book, Tom describes it like this:
This guy Benito, he stole it from somewhere in South America in, like, eighteen hundred and something, and sailed all the way here and buried it in a cave on the shores of Swan Bay. True fact. People are always looking for it because it’s worth millions. Just a few years ago, this company dug a massive hole, like a mine shaft, near the high school, looking for the treasure. And get this: to make sure the walls wouldn’t collapse, they froze them with liquid nitrogen!
Treasure-hunters are still looking for it to this day.
The book is set in two time periods—1992 and 2018—and the story goes back and forth between the two periods. Did you write it the way it is published or did you write the time periods separately?
I started writing it as I imagined the final book would be—jumping between the two periods. But I found it too hard to keep the two versions of Drew straight in my head. One was 12 and the other 38. It was difficult trying to stay in the voices that suited their age. So I stopped what I was doing, wrote all the 1992 stuff and then started back on the 2018 part. Then I weaved them together in a way that I thought made the most sense.
In the first approach I was concentrating on the main story, trying to find scenes from the past that would support it, rather than making the past a whole story in itself. Doing it that way allowed me to explore that time in its own right, and to take it wherever it wanted to go, rather than it being a kind of annexe to the main story.