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April 18, 2021

The haunting of Poe Ballantine

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Eve Jeffery

On his first trip to Australlia, American author Poe Ballantine will discuss his lauded true-crime memoir Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, in conversation with Richard Fidler on Friday at the Byron Community Centre Theatre.

The book examines the intriguing story of his neighbour, a college maths professor who disappears and whose mutilated body is found three months later.

Ballantine is looking forward to both the country and the event but says he doesn’t know what to expect from the wide brown land.

’My knowledge of your country is shamefully scant,’ says Poe. ’I grew up reading the art critic Robert Hughes in Time Magazine and I’ve just finished for the second time The Great Australian Loneliness, one of the best books ever written. I don’t know if Ernestine Hill is still in the conversation; she’s not politically correct and it’s said that she once incited a phantom gold rush, but her hundred-thousand-mile excursion port to port through the outback and across the vast and merciless deserts with little more than a swag and a typewriter is my kind of stuff.

’Her description of Australia in the 1930s makes the settling of the American West look tame by comparison. Some of her paragraphs contain more than most contemporary novels. I’m also currently enjoying The Mary Smokes Boys, a quite good and very distinctive novel by Queenslander Patrick Holland. Reading his work I’m again left with the feeling that Australia might well be another planet.’

Ballantine says he had no inkling that a story would come from the events in Chadron, Nebraska, where he and his wife and son live. The grip of the work caught him by surprise as he had intended another type of view of the town.

’The whole thing sneaked up and then toppled down upon me’, he says. ’I’d always wanted to write an extended treatment of the town where I lived, but there was no compelling story, until my neighbour Steven’s mysterious disappearance and the discovery of his body three months later. Following the series of bungled investigations, I knew that I not only had a great potential book, but an obligation to find out what really happened.’

Poe says that the response from the townsfolk wasn’t always encouraging as he wrote about the life and times of Chadron. He says that it took six years to bring the book together, so he had the chance to carefully weigh some of the moral dilemmas. At the same time he threw a few of the more deserving characters to the wolves.

’There is no question I spilled secrets and talked out of school. I tore down some curtains and overturned a few tables as well. And I’ve received plenty of criticism for it, threats of violence and legal action. But a book like this, a case like this, with an innocent man charred beyond recognition without explanation at its centre, can’t be fathomed without a fracas. There are too many parties, big players, who don’t want certain things known. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t intruding.’

Ballantine, who is currently working on a collection of essays, mostly travel, called Guidelines for Mountain Lion Safety, says that he did not enjoy the process of writing crime and is not tempted to do another. ’Love and Terror in every way was a long trial,’ he says. ’Most of the stuff I write returns energy, this one drained me. I’ll be haunted by Steven’s death for the rest of my life.’

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