Two wandering souls are thrust together in a lonely place and find in each other what they have been seeking. It's a recipe for a love story that goes back as far as love stories but, if there's a sense of inevitability to William McInnes' new novel The Birdwatcher, it's nothing more than a declaration that, yes, this is a love story. It's the way it's told that makes it memorable, heart-warming and brave.
McInnes' protagonist David is a birdwatcher, one of those who carry binoculars with them and make careful notes regarding their avian experiences. He seeks the Holy Grail, a pale pygmy magpie goose (PPMG).
A call comes from a mate in Queensland, up where the forests grow big and the birds roost. Someone thinks they've spotted a PPMG. David takes leave of his job - and his potential girlfriend - to join the hunt. Up in the rainforest he meets Clare, who has inherited a share in her father's old fruit orchard where there are some pickers' huts often used by birdwatchers. We're introduced to the fringe culture of birdwatching and also to Clare's 16-year-old daughter, who has decided to live a life of her own.
"That's the idea of the book," McInnes says. "These people who've been damaged a bit by life come to realise that the best way to enjoy life is to share it."
The inevitable separation occurs but it can never be permanent. "They followed the pattern of the migratory birds. They discover they are more comfortable with each other, but they're OK when they're separated."
McInnes is a bit of a birdwatcher but not like those in the book.
"It's an amazing sort of connection that people have with birds - I think there's a basic fascination - the way they lift and float above us, fly above us, they're truly wild. In the more populated areas of Australia you don't see a lot of wild things but birds are that sort of unmanageable, unwranglable element."
The author's affection for Australia, in all its aspects, is also deep and wide. "There's Melbourne in the book, and I've got a lot of time for the city, and I've got a lot of time for the rainforest. I mean, I've travelled around a fair bit and I can think of only two towns that I thought were really unpleasant."
McInnes fills his books with fairly ordinary people, with all the depth ordinary people possess. "My stuff is not about grand wars or huge moments, it's sort of domestic, I guess," he says. There's also a great deal of himself in the book. "I never said I was an imaginative creative writer; I go to the same well every time."
He believes he writes about the boofheads of our world but says: "Being a boofhead's not a bad thing. I'm a boofhead but I go to art galleries, I'm moved by music and I like poetry and I put some of my favourites in the book." He also has an economics degree, studied at WAAPA, has a career in acting and was, in 2009, appointed as the chair of the Museum of Australian Democracy.
But there's more of McInnes in the novel. Clare, for one, is trying to cope with bereavement and McInnes' wife, the acclaimed Australian film director Sarah Watt, died in 2011 after a long struggle with cancer. "It's a weird thing, living, in some ways," he says. "I'm trying to deal with stuff I've been through recently. The whole idea of, you know, dying, leaving."
Watt died a month after the couple's memoir Worse Things Happen at Sea was published. It is a joyous celebration of life, full of wonder at the things around them and never seeing imminent death as a defeat because, in all their time together and apart, they are filled with the knowledge that things happen in life, but life itself is good. "We wrote that book together and her writing's really sublime in it," McInnes says.
It could be argued that McInnes' own writing approaches that level. He packs so many observations about life and people and how people deal with life into his novel that it's almost as uplifting as the birds his characters observe, although McInnes probably wouldn't see it that way - he is the most unassuming of writers. "You just can't be too precious about what you do," he says.
McInnes talks plain and writes the same way but it would be a mistake to believe plain talk or writing cannot carry as much emotion, intellect and insight as the most self-consciously "literary" efforts. His book is about ordinary people, and shows how they can be heroes.
The Birdwatcher is published by Hachette Australia ($30). William McInnes will be a guest of the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.