If it weren’t for a persistent brother, writer Favel Parrett could still be sorting mail instead of ploughing through the Southern Ocean on an icebreaker.

An aspiring writer since her teens, by her 20s she was surfing in the day and sorting mail at night and was quite happy with how things had turned out.

“My brother had done a Fine Arts degree and was doing really well as a sculptor for someone so young and he kept hassling me – ‘you used to want to be a writer, what are you doing about that?'” she said.

“In the end I gave in and enrolled in an Adult Ed course on writing and editing.

“I had some fantastic teachers and within a year they said they thought I had something worth working seriously on, and that was the start of Past The Shallows.”

Past the Shallows, about three brothers living in bleak circumstances on Tasmania’s south-east coast, is on several HSC reading lists and is still Parrett’s bestselling book.

But it’s her fascination with Australian icebreakers that’s taken her deep into the Southern Ocean not once, but twice.

Along with botanical illustrator Maura Chamberlain, Parrett was awarded an Arts Fellowship with the Australian Antarctic Program for the 2023/24 season and spent three weeks on RSV Nuyina in late May as it carried out the annual Macquarie Island resupply.

"Crew become family very quickly"

Parrett’s first Arts Fellowship, a six-week round trip to Casey Station on the Aurora Australis in 2011, resulted in her second book about another icebreaker Nella Dan, called When the Night Comes.

“When I was 12 or 13 I was obsessed with that ship,” she said.

“You used to be able to go on board and they’d have Danish hot dogs and pastries.

“They seemed like these huge Vikings with funny accents and they’d really light up Hobart when they were in.

“When I was about 33 I found a photo of the ship and I started writing about it but I knew I couldn’t do it without understanding how it sounds and smells and how resupply happens, so I applied for the Antarctic Fellowship and I got it.”

Parrett describes the experience, where she effectively worked as a trainee steward, as “the best time of my life.”

“I’d get up at 4.30am and mop the internal decks and then do the breakfast service and the lunch service and wash dishes, then I’d have an hour-and-a-half off and I’d do the dinner service so I know how hard the stewards work,” she said.

“It was really tough but it was fantastic.

“I burst into tears when we got back to Hobart. I feel like crew become a family very quickly.”

"I'm just so happy to see they can do that now"

Parrett hadn’t envisaged another trip south but the Nuyina kept cropping up in her life in strange ways.

She is friends with the ship’s designer, a Dane who was a deckhand on the Nella Dan when it ran aground at Macquarie Island in the 1980s.

Then, she was asked to help judge a competition to name the ship.

“About 70 per cent of the entries from primary schools were First Nation's names,” she said.

“I thought that really showed how far we’ve come – that would never have happened when I was at primary school. It was really hard to pick a winner but Nuyina was perfect. It means Aurora Australis so it honours the previous ship and I think that’s as perfect as it gets.”

This time, her project is a novel for young people about a nine-year-old girl who stows away on an icebreaker.

To really understand the ship, she interviewed every willing crew member and passenger, volunteered in the kitchen and cleaned windows, sat with the night watch on the bridge as the ship travelled up and down the island at night and helped monitor cargo movements.

“I thought it could be really cool to talk to the 13-year-old that was me, who wanted to work at sea but couldn’t at the time because I was female,” she said. 

“All I could do was be a steward and even then, there were no female chief stewards so the options for advancement were limited.

“On this voyage, there were three young females on board. One is an IR (integrated rating), so working on the deck doing all the tough work, and two are cadets who’ll be third mates soon.

“It just fills my heart. I feel emotional about it because I’m just so happy to see they can do that now.”

"Kids ask so many questions, it's just a delight"

When it comes to the actual writing, Parrett doesn’t work chronologically but develops a scene at a time.

“I might talk to Nancye the dog handler and then I write up the notes and it turns into a scene with the dog Curly and my character.

“At home, I’ll build those scenes and craft them until I have a series of scenes, and then I start putting it together in a way that works.”

Asked when she hands the manuscript to her editor, she laughs and says: “When they tell me Favel! We need something now!

“Really, it’s when it’s as good as I can get it, because I know there’ll be changes.”

It takes about a year for the book to be published, followed by marketing.

“Children’s books are a bit different. There’s not as much touring or writer’s festivals but you talk at a lot of schools,” Parrett said.

“Kids ask so many questions, it’s just a delight. It’s more joyful than the serious process of adult questions.”

* Maura Chamberlain had permits to collect Macquarie Island plants from Tasmania's Department of Natural Resources and Environment