Di Morrissey as restless as ever

ALECIA HANCOCK
Di Morrissey. Picture: Anna Kucera

I have to wonder if bestselling author Di Morrissey ever sleeps. Since I first interviewed her just over a year and a half ago, she has written and released two more novels, founded an international charity and gone head-to-head with an electricity company over plans to build a high- voltage powerline in New South Wales' Manning Valley.

Morrissey laughs when I ask her if she ever takes any time off. She admits that despite the fact she's scheduled this interview, she's actually taking a holiday and is relaxing in Port Douglas in far North Queensland.

"I've been fishing and sitting in the sun, and doing all those nice things," she says over the phone. She adds she's spent the day doing "girly things" like having a manicure and her hair done.

"I've also got a new granddaughter and so I've been buying pink frilly things."

It sounds like a well-deserved break for Morrissey who, despite travelling to Myanmar three times in the past year, hasn't had much time for putting her feet up: she recently launched The Golden Land Education Foundation to help educate children there.

"I've fallen in love with the country and the people," Morrissey says. "When researching my book The Golden Land, I met this monk who was talking about wanting to start a school and I said I'd help him. He was an extraordinary fellow and quite a visionary.

"In 14 months, the school has gone from being just a patch of ground to a proper building with trained teachers. We've still got a long way to go, but we have 42 village children who are just roaring along."

Morrissey's latest novel, The Winter Sea, is set closer to home. It tells the story of an Italian immigrant who arrived in Australia in the 1920s and the mark his family leaves on a New South Wales fishing town.

She admits she's always had an affinity for the water, a surprising trait considering both her father and baby brother drowned. "I've always wondered why I don't feel an anger or fear of the sea," she says. "I'm always drawn to water and I understand the sea really well, I'm a good boatperson and sailor. Sometimes I feel like I have X-ray vision and can see all the way down to the bottom.

"When I was really young I used to catch fish every night to feed the cats, so it was a way of life for me."

While she describes herself as a "serious recreational fisher person", Morrissey says she's also very aware of the issues created by overfishing. "I am very conscious of the issues of declining fish stocks, marine parks and all the contentious issues surrounding fishing and what's happening to our industry," she says.

"I am sitting here in Port Douglas, just off the Barrier Reef, and there are magnificent coral trout and red emperor and other wonderful fish here. Yet all of the restaurants in town are not allowed to take fish caught from any of the local boats, only from people with commercial fishing licences. Our finest fish and prawns are live-exported out of the country."

Although Morrissey had visited Italy herself on a number of occasions, The Winter Sea was largely inspired by documentaries by a family friend, film and television director Gian Carlo Manara.

"A dear old friend made a series of three documentaries in the 60s, 70s and 80s about the changing fortunes of the tuna industry," she says. "It's an amazing story of immigrants that have come from such a different life."

Morrissey says she has many Italian friends and developed a fascination for the culture as a teenager.

"The people I met were so different to the adults I had grown up with who were staunch, rural down-to-earth Australians, and yet there were a lot of similarities," she says. "I loved the emotional outpouring and the fact they weren't afraid to wear their heart on the sleeve, sing and drink red wine, which I'd never seen before. It was colourful and exotic. Italians have enriched Australian society in many, many ways."

The Winter Sea is published by Macmillan ($33). Di Morrissey will be in Perth on November 14 for a Parmelia Hilton event including author talk, Q&A, book sales and signings and morning tea. Tickets $40 per person from Dymocks on 9364 7687 or email gcorders@dymocks.com.au