What Goes Around: Susan Duncan has learnt that the secret to life is as simple as surrounding yourself with good people

If the accepted wisdom about adversity revealing a person’s true colours is correct, Susan Duncan’s bushfire plan delivers the full rainbow.

The journalist and author is recalling the summer of 2019, when fires encircled the home she shares with her husband, Bob Story, on a farm in the hills behind the NSW mid-north coast. “We’d been in drought for three years so there was no water in the dam,” she recalls. “There was a horseshoe of fire surrounding us and it just kept coming closer. I asked Bob when we were going to leave and he said ‘not today’. I wasn’t about to leave him, so I put two deck chairs, some food for the dogs, a couple of bottles of bubbles for me and a bottle of red for him in the bunker. I figured if we were going to die, we’d die happy.” As a combustion engineer, Bob had faith that the fire would most likely pass quickly over their home and they would survive in the underground shelter that houses the batteries and other hardware including a back-up generator for their solar-powered, off-grid home.

As it turned out, a change in wind direction a few hours earlier than predicted gave the Rural Fire Service the window they needed to come in and make a firebreak, and Bob and Susan’s house was spared. Down-to-earth and practical to the point of pragmatism, Susan approaches life’s challenges with a wry sense of humour and a healthy measure of scepticism honed by her long career as a journalist. “The fact is I thought I’d be dead at 50,” she explains of her first breast cancer diagnosis in 1999. “Everything is a bonus when you survive and nothing is ever as scary again.” Susan has just endured another mastectomy — “I always said I wanted to be flat-chested” — and this time round avoided the debilitating processes of chemotherapy and radiation and opted to forgo further drug treatment.

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“It took me five years to get over the last lot of chemotherapy,” she says. “I’m 72 now and if my time’s up, my time is up. But not just yet, I hope. I’m feeling fantastic.” She’s currently on the promo circuit for her latest novel, Sleepless in Stringybark Bay, which is set in a part of Sydney’s Pittwater that’s not all that dissimilar to where she and Bob live when they’re not on the farm. She’s also 62,000 words into a sequel to the story, which further explores the machinations of the tight-knit, boat-access-only community and the efforts of a group of older people who are attempting to avoid the inevitable issues of housing and health in later life by living communally. “It’s going well,” Susan says. “For the first time, I have a really good twist, so I’m feeling pleased with its progress.”

The new novel continues a series that began with The Briny Café, which introduced readers to life in this idyllic part of the world, where people come and go by ferry or tinnie and, while everything may not always be completely harmonious, always look after each other … even the slightly weird and whacky ones. Gone Fishing and Sleepless in Stringybark Bay continued this fictional version of Susan’s life, while she’s also expanded on it with her real-life experiences in four memoirs, Salvation Creek, The House at Salvation Creek, The House on the Hill and A Life on Pittwater. “Pittwater has a very special place in my heart,” she says. “It’s where I discovered the value of community. The fact is those people saved me when I was sick. I’d come back from appointments in the city and leave my groceries at the ferry wharf because I’d be too exhausted to carry them to the house.

When I’d open the door, they’d have been delivered, along with a cake or a casserole to keep me going. I never really knew by whom and there was no expectation of repayment, just an understanding that people cared.” Community and resilience are themes Susan frequently refers to in her work, which she admits is influenced by anecdotes and snippets from real-life experiences. “All my characters contain a little corner of me,” she says. “The only person who is ‘real’ is Cliffy, who is pretty much based on my Uncle Frank, who’s now 97 and farmed with his children until he was 92. He still leads a full and active life. When I asked him what his secret was, he said, ‘I just keep going. I get a few twinges, but then I think it’ll be right. Until it’s not and there’s no point worrying about that.’” The sharing of food, in particular baking, is another constant thread, so it’s hardly surprising that Susan is a keen cook.

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This passion is a touch ironic as she reveals that she grew up at the Bonegilla migrant camp run by the army near Wodonga in northern Victoria. “Dad was the supply officer,” she explains. “He was a real lamb chops and rissoles man, and at one stage the Italians rioted and demanded pasta.” Her parents went on to run a pub at Melton on Melbourne’s western periphery and Susan recalls coming home from boarding school on weekends and being seconded to the kitchen on Sundays to prepare meals for bona fide travellers, a loophole for getting around the restrictive service of alcohol laws of the time. “Mum would go off to tennis and I’d be in charge,” she recalls. “Somewhere along the way, I got my hands on a Robert Carrier cookbook and my specialty was deep-fried sardine-stuffed eggs. Then when I was in London, I lived with two girls who did Le Cordon Bleu courses.

We were all broke so we were very much into working out appetising ways to extend baked beans and make them seem more adventurous.” As it turns out, Australian Country and Susan share a bit of kitchen history as, back in the day, she entered one of our competitions and won a new cooker for her Pittwater community fire brigade’s shed. “We have these large gatherings there and the stove was buggered, with only two hot plates working and the oven totally unreliable,” she recalls. “So I saw the comp and dashed off an entry. Bob took one look at it and rewrote it, which miffed me a bit — an engineer telling a journalist what to write — but lo and behold we won and it’s still going strong feeding the community for fundraisers and Christmas parties.”

Susan’s memoirs unflinchingly trace the trajectory of many curved balls that have come her way: how following the death of her first husband and brother in the same week, in 1995, she buried herself in work and an ill-advised affair. Eighteen months later, she turned her back on her hugely successful journalistic career, which included stints in Cape Town, London and New York and editing The Australian Women’s Weekly and New Idea, in an attempt to find a reason “to get out of bed in the mornings”. “I sold up my house and set off with my Rottweiler in my ute to try to find somewhere to start again,” she says. “I kept going back to places that I knew and then friends invited me to a 50th birthday celebration at their home on Pittwater. After the party, they said ‘stay a while’, so I did. I ended up making an offer on a house that I didn’t particularly want and that was how I became the owner of the tin shed.”

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Then came the devastating breast cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment in 1999, coincidentally at the same time as Bob’s first wife, Barbara, was fighting her own, ultimately terminal, cancer. Bob and Barbara were Susan’s neighbours as well as friends as they owned Tarrangaua, which was built for the poet Dorothea Mackellar, in 1925. “Before Barbara died, she said to me, ‘Look after Bob,’” Susan recalls. “But the truth is, I didn’t like him very much. Barbara was my friend, we went through chemo together, but I thought Bob was grumpy and monosyllabic. I now know he has a very dry sense of humour and, when we have company, he’s prone to a good chat.” She candidly confesses her instinct for finding romance had previously been an “infallible attraction to charming bastards”. “But as Bob project-managed the restoration of my tin shed, I came to realise he was a very good man,” she says.

“He’s not only handy and can always be relied upon to light a good fire, he’s just a thoroughly decent person.” While Bob and Susan keep the Pittwater house as a summer residence, they now divide their time between there and the farm, which they bought in 2012. “Bob came up to build a kiln for a local brickworks,” Susan explains. “It was a family-run business and they needed to reduce their emissions or they were going to be forced out of business. After he’d been here for a while, he decided to look for a bit of land, maybe five acres [2 hectares], with a lemon tree and we could come up in winter. That, of course, turned into 230 acres [93 hectares], and now he’d like more. And the Angus steers to keep the grass mowed became a bull and cows, and the herd keeps growing. He’s had two tractor accidents up here, but he’s unstoppable.

We thought we’d build a little off-grid house, but that turned into a big house and we’ve got an Ikea amount of storage, as well as an orchard and vegetable garden, plus a worm farm and a huge compost heap.” She adds that their initial idealism about living without mains power or water has had a thorough reality check as they’ve contended with drought, the fires, floods, a mouse plague and the deaths of “too many dogs” during the past decade. “We were crazy-committed environmentalists,” she admits. “People don’t realise how hard it is to live off-grid. Three days without sun and you have to run the generator and when there’s no rain, you’ve no choice but to buy water. We planted a corridor of koala-friendly trees and Bob waters them with the tractor. But you can only do it when there’s enough rain to fill the dams. Eventually, we will have to stop watering them and it will be survival of the fittest.” Fortunately, they are surrounded by yet another good community — “the family you choose”.

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There’s Bob’s mate who looks after the farm when they’re away and encourages his penchant for developing his cattle herd, plus good neighbours who know the “right time to visit and are always ready to help when you need a hand”. There’s a choice of not one but two cakes sitting on the bench as Susan ushers us into the kitchen of the long open-plan farmhouse. She explains that she baked double because there’s a neighbour who could do with a bit of a pick-me-up. “Don’t worry if you don’t eat it all,” she adds as she cuts huge wedges of lemon ricotta cake, gilding the lily with a blob of crème fraîche. “If you don’t finish it off, the chooks will. That’s the beauty of having hens. Everything comes back as an egg.”

Photography by Ken Brass

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